FOOTBALL IS BACK !! For the first time since February there is hope and light and something to discuss that isn’t world-ending. Hurrah for football!
We’ve had the draft, we’ve had the speculation and we’ve had our fill of covid-friendly, iso-bubble namby-pamby training camps. What we really want is bone-crunching, pass-catching, touchdown-scoring football. Tomorrow night the reigning champion Chiefs get the season underway against division rivals the Texans at Arrowhead as they look to be the first repeat champions since the ’04 and ’05 Patriots. The season is going to post many, many questions and dilemmas for staff and players alike in these strange times, but ultimately one thing remains true, the best team post-Christmas will claim the crown. So lets take a look through the teams by Conference and Division and weigh up their chances of reaching the tickertape glory land…
THE AFC NORTH
Reigning MVP Lamar Jackson looks to make the jump in the post-season to ensure his Ravens team meet their lofty expectations. Hold up though, there’s no guarantee this is an easy ride, Big Ben is back piloting the Steelers, who came agonisingly close to post-season football last year despite Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges being under centre, The Browns have all the talent and a new head-coach to try and exploit it and the Bengals can only be better than they were a season ago. Hold on tight in the AFC North race…
Harbaugh and the Ravens should’ve been even better last season, they should have pushed K.C all the way, instead, they collapsed in the playoffs once again. This cycle cant continue surely? Well, actually, it can. Just watch. Theres a lot of excitement about new RB J.K Dobbins, but don’t overlook Mark Ingram, he is the key to this run offense, because teams don’t know who to cover, he or Jackson. The Run game is key because the Ravens run more than any other team, and they have to continue doing so as the WR Group is poor again outside of Marquise Brown (Willie Snead Myles Boykin anyone?), and TD Machine Mark Andrews is bound to hit a regressive slump. The D Is aggressive and frightening once again, The addition of Patrick Queen (LB) AND Calais Campbell (21.5 sacks in 3 seasons at Jacksonville) means opposition QBs should never be comfortable. Look out for former Bronco Derek Wolfe at D.E too, the man is a machine. Their biggest weakness is probably the fact that they meet the Steelers twice.
Its all about staying healthy. Big Ben missed 14 games last year and the combo of Hodges and Rudolph were kept afloat by an outstanding defensive effort. If that can be replicated with Roethlisberger hurling the ball to Ju-Ju, James Washington and Dionte Johnson as well as the often-forgotten Eric Ebron (Wait and see) then the Steelers will push the Ravens close. James Conner is a difference maker IF hes fit, 6 games missed last year didn’t help the cause. The pieces on Offense are there to start the season, they need to be there at the end too. The D can match anything the Ravens have on show, T.J Watt is my pick for Def player of the year (14.5 sacks and 2 INTS in 2019), Cameron Heyward has been a monster on the D-line for years and just got paid as such, Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden… I wont go on, but I could. Split with the Ravens and the post season looms.
Projected record: 10-6
Wait, I know what you’re thinking, why are the Bengals next in this list, they sucked last year, barely won a game and looked lost under a new H.C. All fair points, but the team has stability now after a year in the Zac Taylor system, the mercurial talent of AJ Green is back in the starting line-up, Joe Mixon showed at the end of last year why he’s so highly rated out of the backfield and lets not forget the draft-day signing on no.1 pick Joe Burrow coming off a historically good college career. Yes there will be huge bumps in the road (O-Line, O-Line, O-Line) and no, it wouldn’t take much to crush this optimism, but I believe in Burrow and it appears the Bengals do too. The Defence doesn’t give so much cause for joy though, Dunlap, Reader and Atkins mean the front will generate pressure, but the young secondary could be picked apart by opposing Off-Coordinators if they don’t improve quickly. C.B. Darius Phillips had 4 INTs in 8 starts, he’ll need similar production this season. Starting Markus Bailey at Middle-Linebacker is a big call, seeing as he barely played in college last season due to a knee injury. There may not be a lot of wins, but there will be a lot of improvement.
Projected record: 5-11
All the talent in the world cannot bring success if its not correctly galvanised, and that is what was sorely missing in Cleveland last year. Nick Chubb, OBJ, Jarvis Landry, Baker Mayfield, Austin Hooper, Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Denzel Ward, the roster is stacked. Freddie Kitchens failed to get the most out of these players, the problem is, his replacement, Kevin Stefanski, hasn’t had the opportunity to solidify his schemes through pre-season games. We’ve seen how tricky it can be for a new coach to get his plan installed (think Shanahan, Taylor, Flores etc) and this year above all others is harder still. Stefanski is a promising H.C, and he shouldn’t be judged on this year alone, but if success isn’t here quickly you may see some of those star names eager to walk away. Side-note, how long before Kareem Hunt gets fed up with being RB2 on this team and starts making a fuss? There is no room for internal disruption this year. Jack Conklin joining th o-line is a big upgrade meaning Baker is unlikely to be under as much pressure as last year, but tell me you don’t doubt him and I’ll call you a liar… Ive never been sold and I remain sceptical.
Projected record 5-11
Ravens and Steelers for the post season, but in which order…?