By John Kaufman
(This is part one of a two-part article. Part two will be posted by Saturday, September 5.)
Today is Thursday, September 3, in the year 2020, a year that – and while this is not yet official, it’s clearly just a formality at this point – is destined to be subtitled:
“The worst year ever. Period. I know you thought that 2016 was awful (and it certainly was, especially for celebrities, remember how they seemingly all died that year??). But now we know that, compared to 2020, the year 2016 was a damn tickle fight held in between meals consisting of never-ending, bone-in ribeyes after winning the Powerball. Twice. So yeah, 2020 is the best at being the worst, and holy moly, we still have four months of it left.”
Okay, well, unwieldy subtitles that barely pass as jokes aside, 2020 has been staggeringly scary to basically everyone everywhere and for just about every reason fathomable. Even typing out the last line in the subtitle – that somehow there are still 118 days remaining until 2021 – felt simultaneously impossible while also being kick-you-in-the-fun-zone accurate. If ever a year was an actual buzzkill, it is 2020 without a doubt.
And while I personally cannot do anything to bring about a swift end to 2020’s reign of tyranny, I can be a Glass-Half-Full NFL Analyst (no, my new title does not come with a raise, of course, so the eyeroll emoji goes here), spending the rest of this article highlighting some things we might actually be looking forward to this year, while ignoring whatever other flaming, crap-filled bags that 2020 intends to leave on our porches. So that’s what I’m going to do. I am now officially a Silver-Linings NFL Analyst (still no raise; I can’t believe you even asked) with one mission: to walk you through the ten NFL games I am most looking forward to on the 2020 schedule.
Yeah, it’s time to once again look down the road with hope and eager anticipation. You know, like we used to do before every forecast ended with some nightmarish version of abject terror. But before we can do that, let’s clear up one thing: how I came up with my list of the ten most eagerly anticipated NFL games.
I stayed away from all Sunday games that kickoff at 1:00 PM Eastern simply because a lot of NFL fans don’t have a choice of what game to watch at that time. Therefore, I solely focused on Sunday afternoon games (4:05/4:25 PM Eastern kickoffs), Sunday and Monday Night Football games, and hell, even one Thursday Night Football game snuck onto my list.
Otherwise, there wasn’t any other rigid criteria a game needed to check off in order to make my list. I just looked for games that, based upon what we know about each team right now, seem like they’re going to be must-see TV, regardless of which NFL team you root for. Remember the Chiefs-Rams game from 2018? The one that had the highest-ever betting total of 63 points, but thanks to 11 total touchdowns, went over late in the third quarter and saw the Rams win by a final score of 54-51? Yeah, I was trying to put ten of those games on my list.
Calm down, buddy. OF COURSE I realize that ten of those games don’t actually exist throughout all of NFL history. But since I have morphed into Señor-Positivity-NFL-Analyst dude, I now have lofty goals AND expectations, and 2020 can go spit. So yes, all ten of the games on my list below will be as good as, or better than, that 2018 Chiefs-Rams game.
Let’s do this.
Honorable Mention: Week 9 – Miami Dolphins at Arizona Cardinals
Sunday, November 8, 4:25 PM on CBS
This game just missed the cut for one obvious reason: Tua Tagovailoa’s health. In a typical offseason, Tua’s injury history would provide us with a frustratingly vast range of outcomes. Due to COVID-19, however, we don’t know how to even begin speculating about how much, if at all, Tua will see the field this year. And while science cannot instantaneously halt this virus and return life back to normal, it can provide us with an impeccable prediction of what we should expect from Tua’s debut NFL season.
How, you ask? Physics.
(Don’t worry, we’ll get there. Just stick with me on this one.)
You see, the result of Tua’s rookie year can be perfectly explained by the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. The MWI asserts that every possible outcome for any realistically conceivable event or action all exist, but not just in our universe. They exist in an unlimited number of different universes that we simply cannot perceive. Remember the time you nailed that job interview and consequently were offered that position? Well, in some other universe you effed that thing up bigtime, and are now working somewhere else. Every possible outcome exists and is played out in some other universe.
And so it is with Tua in 2020. Every possible outcome exists, but good luck trying to figure out which one will occur in our universe.
Will he be the Offensive Rookie of the Year? Definitely.
Or, might he not play a single snap until 2021? Stone-cold lock.
Could he take over as the Dolphins’ starting QB sometime late in the year? Of course that’s how this will play out.
We can all thank physics for taking a stab at trying to predict Tua’s rookie season, but even quantum mechanics falls short sometimes. Some version of one of the scenarios above will play out in our universe. Unfortunately, we’ll just have to wait and see which one it ends up being. But yeah, if this week nine game were to feature Tua vs Kyler Murray, oh boy. Sign me up. That game would make my top ten list in any universe.
#10: Week 1 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints
Sunday, September 13, 4:25 PM on FOX
C’mon. Even though this one is pretty obvious, it doesn’t make it a bad selection. Tom Brady in a non-Patriots uniform for the first time in his career, tossing the ball to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin? Yeah, I think we’re all incredibly curious to find out what that’s going to look like.
The first week of each NFL season always delivers nearly unparalleled anticipation and excitement. Maybe the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, or perhaps a Game Seven in an NBA Finals or World Series, provides us with the same level of eagerness and pure elation. But not many other sporting events offer up the same kind of hopeful euphoria like the first Sunday of a brand-new NFL season. And we haven’t had an NFL week one without Tom Brady dressed in a Patriots uniform since 1999. (1999!! My goodness, the first Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movie wouldn’t hit theaters for another three years, that’s how long ago that was.) So if nothing else, the sheer oddity of seeing him in a different uniform is enough to get me to flip the channel to this game.
But beyond the strangeness of it all, New Orleans and Tampa Bay may prove to be two of the better NFC teams this year. For a multitude of reasons, I think we can safely put Sean Payton’s Saints in that category already. Not only is New Orleans’ roster loaded with talent all over the place, but they are dealing with a lot less turnover within their coaching staff and among their roster than quite a few other NFL franchises. In an offseason dominated by utter chaos, confusion and a lack of cohesion due to COVID-19, NFL teams that have less new pieces and parts to incorporate are going to find this season that much easier to manage. The Saints returning many of the same faces from 2019 is going to give them a massive advantage this year.
Additionally, New Orleans’ head coach – Sean Payton – gives them a major edge because he is easily one of the smartest and best offensive minds in the league today. Payton was hired by the Saints in 2006, so he is entering his 15th season with the franchise. Excluding the 2012 season in which he was suspended for the entire year due to his role in the “Bountygate” scandal, his offense has only finished outside the top ten in Football Outsider’s DVOA metric twice, and they’ve never finished lower than 12th. (DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average and is explained here.) His offense finished 11th in 2010 and 12th in 2007. Otherwise, they’ve never finished worse than 8th, and in seven seasons they’ve ended up as top-five offense. That kind of consistency is basically unheard of and extremely difficult to pull off year-in and year-out, yet Payton does it repeatedly. So, we should expect more of the same for Drew Brees and company in 2020.
Also, this just needs to be said: Sean Payton is undeniably one of the coolest coaches in league history. This dude opened up the second half of a Super Bowl with an onside kick. I mean, if you could melt down the bravado it took to make that call in that moment in that game and mold it into a weapon, it would crumple Wolverine’s piddly little bones like a can of Natty Light on a frat boy’s forehead.
So yeah, this game is filled with intrigue and mystery. The combined age of the two starting quarterbacks in this contest is a calculator-busting 84 years, yet if each one plays like he’s 24 again, exactly zero of us will be shocked by that. The news out of the Buccaneers’ practices is that their running back, Ronald Jones, has noticeably improved. And news dropped today that they signed the recently-cut Leonard Fournette. If Tampa Bay actually adds a rushing attack to go along with those passing game weapons, they will be very tough to beat indeed. And speaking of the Buccaneers’ aerial weapons, Brady playing for Tampa Bay even lured Rob Gronkowski out of retirement. Getting to actually watch Gronk line up with Evans and Godwin will be remarkably salacious. There just is not one single facet of this game that is not unbelievably interesting.
However, as curious as we may be to watch this contest, it is just a week 1 game. And while the NFL’s small sample size season means that every game is important, we all know that games at the end of each season tend to feel like they mean more. That’s why this Saints-Bucs game is at #10 on my list. The nine games below occur later in the season, so they’re going to feel like they are more important than a week one matchup, especially when they are in primetime on Monday Night Football…
#9: Week 6 – Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys
Monday, October 19, 8:15 PM on ESPN
Kyler Murray vs Dak Prescott?
Ezekiel Elliott vs Kenyan Drake?
DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk vs Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup?
Kliff Kingsbury vs Mike McCarthy?
Yes, please. Also, more, please. No, don’t stop. Just keep scooping that goodness onto my plate. Or directly into my mouth. Choke, shmoke. Whatever, just keep it coming.
The entire football-watching world fully expects Dallas’ offense to be elite this year. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, the 2019 Cowboys’ offense finished second in the NFL behind only Baltimore. And that was with former head coach, Jason Garrett, running the show. My unofficial nickname for Garrett is “Mr. 8-8,” as his Cowboys finished with that record four times in his nine full seasons. I swear, if instead of wishing to be big, Josh Baskin had asked that Zoltar machine to turn the “this is fine” meme into an actual living human being, that mechanical genie would have spit out Jason Garrett.
Doesn’t that dog look just like Garrett standing at the podium during a postgame press conference, staring ahead unenthusiastically as he tries to explain Dallas’ latest perplexing loss, or botched game plan, or playoff disappointment? I can’t be certain that whoever created this meme was solely inspired by Jason Garrett… but yeah, whoever created that meme was solely inspired by Jason Garrett.
Anyway, the Cowboys have finally moved on from their anchor of mediocrity and sadness (I guess I have a few nicknames for Garrett). To replace him, Dallas has hired ex-Green Bay head coach, Mike McCarthy, who was out of football in 2019 after being let go by the Packers near the end of the 2018 season. McCarthy reportedly spent his year off expanding his football knowledge by reviewing the plays run by the NFL’s top ten offenses to see what made them so successful. He also was working on the creation of his own technology and analytics department so that whenever he returned to the league, he’d be ready to approach the game using the newest methods and the freshest information. And, according to that Business Insider article linked above, he even spent a day at the Pro Football Focus headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, trying to get a grasp on data and analytics and how to include them in his offensive schemes.
Clearly, McCarthy used his time off to become a better coach, so if that translates into a better offense than what we saw from Dallas in 2019, wowsers. That’s gonna be a lot of fun to watch each and every week. But it will be especially fun when Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray are the opponent.
To say that the 2019 season was a bit of a rollercoaster for the Cardinals’ rookie head coach and quarterback would be both accurate and a slight understatement. The peaks crested somewhere just south of the International Space Station, while the valleys were so low that you’d need Dante to show you around while you’re down there.
And the hype? That was insane. We were convinced they were going to run 120 plays per game, and run 10 personnel (one RB, zero TEs, four WRs) on every play, and basically that they’d reinvent the forward pass. They ended up averaging 62.5 plays per game, which was only 21st in the NFL. (For reference, Philadelphia and Atlanta lead the lead in average number of plays per game with 68.5.) And they did start out the season by running a boatload of 10 personnel. But that personnel grouping wasn’t very successful for them, so by the end of the year they were running a lot more 11 personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs), which is much more common across the NFL.
But as far reinventing the forward pass goes, well, they didn’t really do that. What they did do with tremendous success, which was pretty shocking considering the hype surrounding their aerial attack, was run the football. The Cardinals finished 2nd in the NFL in rushing DVOA according to Football Outsiders. Meanwhile, they ended up 20th in passing DVOA, a finish that probably drove Kingsbury insane. I’m that as soon as the season ended, he began working on solving the problem of fixing those poor passing numbers and improving the aerial attack overall. Luckily, it didn’t take Kingsbury and the Cardinals’ front office very long to come up with a pretty good solution.
Yeah, if your passing game was lacking some oomph and pizzazz, adding Nuk to your roster seems like a pretty awesome way to fix those issues.
Even if Hopkins weren’t on the Cardinals, I would still be awfully eager to watch Arizona face off against Dallas for this week 6 Monday Night Football game. But with Hopkins? Well, let’s just say that I’ve been googling “time travel” an inordinate number of times. Not only is this game going to be incredibly fun to watch, but it is the exact type of game that should be featured on Monday Night Football each week: explosive, fast-tempo offenses that can attack a defense in multiple ways, elite players all over the field, and just enough defense so that this won’t be a Big 12 game (where the first team to 75 points wins). This game will easily be one of the highlights of the 2020 season. As the kids are saying, LFG!!
#8: Week 4 – Philadelphia Eagles at San Francisco 49ers
Sunday, October 4, 8:20 PM on NBC
Full disclosure time. I put my list together a few weeks ago, before every offensive player in Philly came down with an injury. Although considering that’s exactly what happened to them in 2019, I guess I either shouldn’t be surprised right now, or should have seen this coming.
(Incidentally, perhaps my favorite NFL stat of all time is this gem: in 2019, Carson Wentz became the first QB in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards without having a single receiver go over 500 yards. That’s absurd and I love every ounce of that statistic.)
Jalen Reagor is dealing with a shoulder injury that will cost him roughly a month of down time. Alshon Jeffery apparently turned 68-years old this year and has to use one of those walkers with tennis balls on the feet. Dallas Goedert has a thumb injury that seems minor but who knows? Carson Wentz has missed practice due to what the Eagles are calling a “lower body injury.” Miles Sanders suffered a hamstring strain that, according to Eagles beat reporter Geoff Mosher, “is not the least mild one, but also not the most severe.” Whatever that means. And although DeSean Jackson is currently healthy, we all know he’s always one go route away from an exploded hamstring. Somebody go find Zach Ertz and put him on the top shelf of mom’s china cabinet.
When this game kicks off in early October, perhaps these players’ injuries will be long gone. Or maybe they’ll miss this contest because those nagging-type maladies that players try to power through can end up costing them more time later on. I don’t know. But even if the Eagles are down a player or two, as long as Wentz and Ertz are healthy, and the Eagles’ defense is still an above-average squad, the 49ers will have their hands full in this contest.
San Francisco is coming off a brutal Super Bowl loss. With about ten minutes remaining in the game, they had a 10-point lead and the ball. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs proceeded to score 21 points in the final six minutes and that was that. Ballgame.
Throughout NFL history, the loser of the Super Bowl hasn’t exactly fared well the following season. And we should expect a decent amount of regression to hit San Francisco this year, especially where the 49ers’ defense is concerned. It’s just really difficult to sustain excellence on the defensive side of the ball, even from just one season to the next. This FiveThirtyEight article does an excellent job of showing how even simple things like turnover rate is wildly unpredictable from year to year. Therefore, we should expect San Francisco’s #2-ranked defense by DVOA to be a bit worse this year.
However, it’s not all gloom and doom up in the bay area. I think we can safely predict San Francisco’s offense to be better than it was in 2019. Or rather, head coach Kyle Shanahan will have more available pieces to work with. Granted, Deebo Samuel is dealing with a stress fracture in his foot that will almost certainly cause him to miss at least some of the beginning of the season. Likewise, first-round draft pick Brandon Aiyuk has missed some practices with a mild hamstring injury. But RB Jerrick McKinnon is finally healthy for the first time in two years, and that’s not nothing. Let’s not forget that, upon being hired as the head coach, McKinnon was one of the first players that Shanahan brought to San Francisco. New contracts for RB Raheem Mostert and TE George Kittle keep both of them in line for major usage in 2020. QB Jimmy Garoppolo is another year removed from his ACL injury, and that is always a good thing. And the 49ers added LT Trent Williams in the offseason, thus helping to shore up one of the only weak spots on their offensive line from last year. Despite the aforementioned injuries to two important WRs, 49er fans have plenty of reasons for optimism with their offense this year.
When these two teams meet in week 4, whether they’re both fairly banged up or not, this game will have a playoff-type atmosphere for sure. According to NFL win totals posted in Las Vegas, both teams are expected to win more than nine games and are also projected to make the postseason. This game might actually be a playoff preview then, with both teams perhaps facing off again in January. So yeah, this contest was an easy one to include on my list. It will feature two of the smartest coaches in the league, two of the better, young QBs, two solid defenses, and two offenses that, with a little injury luck (already a tall ask for Philly, I know), could be among the NFL’s best. And we get a likely postseason preview game in early October all by itself on Sunday Night Football. Don’t you just love it when the NFL schedule-makers just absolutely crush one outta the park?
#7: Week 12 – Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sunday, November 29, 4:25 PM on CBS
By late November, we’ll obviously know if the Tom-Brady-and-Gronk-in-Tampa experiment has blown up in everyone’s faces or not. And if it does end up being a disaster, and Father Time finally catches up with a 43-year old QB, and Gronk’s return isn’t as impactful as we imagined it could be, and a lack of any real offseason proves to be too much to overcome, then this game will have been a silly addition to this list. Duh.
But, if Brady has that thing humming down there in Tampa and that pirate ship is setting off canon blasts with delightful frequency, then the anticipation for this game will be as high as the black skull-and-crossbones flag on the main mast.
This is Kansas City’s first appearance on my list. Naturally, it won’t be their last either. With Patrick Mahomes slinging the ball to Travis Kelce, Tyreke Hill, Mecole Hardman, and everyone else on the planet who runs a 4.3 forty, this team is just so much fun watch. And then they went and drafted RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft. It’s hard to imagine the Chiefs getting any more exhilarating to watch. But honestly, the anticipation of finally finding out how Andy Reid will deploy CEH within their offense is almost too much to bear. Damien Williams was very good for them last year. If CEH is better… I just don’t think there will be too many NFL records still standing at the end of this season.
Looking at the Chiefs’ 2020 schedule, there were five or six games that could have made this list. I singled out this week 12 matchup with the Bucs for a few reasons. First, I think we all expect the Baltimore Ravens and the New Orleans Saints to be vying for the #1 seed in their respective conferences. If that is the case, then both Kansas City and Tampa Bay will need this game to perhaps keep pace with the Ravens and the Saints. Dropping a game this late in the season – even to a non-conference opponent – could prove disastrous for the loser. You see, for both divisional and playoff-seeding tiebreakers, the NFL uses a team’s divisional record and then their conference record to break ties. Therefore, the four games per year that each team plays against teams from the other conference mean slightly less than the divisional and intra-conference games do because the losses don’t as badly in tiebreaker scenarios.
Even with that in mind, however, a loss is still a loss. So, let’s say that the Ravens are 9-2 at this point in the season, and Kansas City is 8-2. A loss to Tampa Bay puts them a game behind Baltimore with only five games remaining. If Baltimore wins out, they would earn the only playoff bye this year, forcing the Chiefs to have a play the new #7 seed in the first round of the playoffs.
Likewise, if Bruce Arians’ Bucs hope to win the NFC South, first they’ll have to split their games with the Saints at the very minimum, and hopefully sweep the Falcons and the Panthers (which will not be easy to do at all). Additionally, they’re going to have to win some big games, and a home game in week 12 vs Mahomes and the Chiefs certainly qualifies in that regard. Dropping this game to Kansas City could mean the difference between winning the division and making the playoffs as a wildcard team. Or, it could be the difference between making and missing the playoffs altogether. When this game kicks off, everything will be on the line for both teams. What more could you ask for in a regular season NFL game?
Last, the Bucs’ defense was very impressive last year – they finished #5 in the NFL in DVOA. Even if we project a slight drop in their production in 2020, they could easily still end up as a top-ten unit. But when Patrick Mahomes comes to town, your status as a top-ten defense usually ends up being irrelevant. Tom Brady and the Bucs offense may have to put up 45 points to win this game. Think of the Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl and how as you were watching Brady and Nick Foles both seemingly throw for 1,000 yards each, you knew that one of them had to lose that game. This game will be like that; Mahomes and Brady are going to have to out-duel one another all afternoon long. And that, good people, is what we call “Must See TV.”
Simply put, this game has a chance to be epic, and that is exactly how to find yourself on a top-ten most anticipated NFL games list.
#6: Week 10 – San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints
Sunday, November 8, 4:25 PM on CBS
In the days and hours leading up to this game on CBS’ and ESPN’s NFL preview shows, what do you think there will be more of?
Highlights of last year’s week 14 game between New Orleans and San Francisco, specifically of the play late in the game in which the 49ers went for it on 4th and 2 from their own 33, and Jimmy Garoppolo found George Kittle open on a quick out which Kittle then turned into a 39-yard gain despite the Saints’ Marcus Williams yanking on Kittle’s facemask for the final 15 yards of the play.
Pregame beers drank by Saints fans in the French Quarter.
Not to underestimate the indestructible livers and elite drinking prowess of the average Saints fan, but I’m going with that Kittle play. The week before my #6 game, the 49ers play at home against the Packers on Thursday night. The second that game ends, that Kittle highlight is going to run on a loop until this 49ers-Saints game kicks off ten days later. And why shouldn’t it? It’s one of the most badass plays in NFL history. It’s not as good as Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Quake” touchdown run in the 2010 playoffs vs the Saints, but c'mon, man. What is? Lynch’s run is easily one of the top-three rushing plays in NFL history.
(Also, holy moly, Saints fans. If an unforgettably remarkable play happens, especially during the postseason, y’all are always on the short end of that stick, eh? As a Browns fan, I truly feel for you.)
Anyways, I brought up that Kittle play for this reason: if I were Sean Payton, I think I would turn every locker room TV to CBS and ESPN so that all of my players will be forced to watch that play over and over throughout the entire week leading up to that game. I’d want every player on my team to be reminded of how we let that game slip away from us like that. Although now that I think about it, it’s pretty likely that Sean won’t have to repeatedly show his guys that play. I’m sure it has been scored into their memories for all eternity and that they already are as pissed off as can be, which is why I cannot wait to see these two teams face off this year.
Other than avenging last year’s loss, the Saints will be focused on winning this week 10 home game so that they can stay in the race for the NFC playoff bye. Using Las Vegas win totals again, New Orleans is one of three NFC teams whose over/under is listed at ten wins or more. The 49ers are at 10.5 wins, while the Saints and the Cowboys are at 10 even. The Saints don’t play the Cowboys this year (although Dallas does square off at home against San Francisco in week 15, a game that very nearly made this list), so they would have to rely upon their conference record in tiebreaker scenarios with Dallas. That’s why this game against the 49ers is so important. It would give the Saints a much-needed win in the NFC while simultaneously providing them with a head-to-head tiebreaker over San Francisco. This game will almost certainly be the number one factor in discerning which team will be on the inside track toward earning that sole playoff bye, and which team will be playing on Wildcard Weekend. As far as regular season games go, it just doesn’t get any bigger than this.
(Stop back to check out my top five games in part two of this article!)
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