In the ninth and final installment of my 2020 NFL Record Prediction series, I’ll be using my record predictions (found below) to predict the victor of Super Bowl LV in Tampa.
Note: These predictions are meant to reflect not just which team is better in a duel of two coteries, but who I feel the likely winner will be based on circumstances and situations.
Feel free to bookmark these articles as the year unfolds; as always, you are welcome to comment your own predictions as I go along, or even ask for justification for specific game outcomes!
Thanks to all who have followed this series, and enjoy!
1. Baltimore Ravens (13-3)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (13-3)
3. Tennessee Titans (12-4)
4. Buffalo Bills (10-6)
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
6. Denver Broncos (9-7)
7. Indianapolis Colts (9-7)
Note: In the newly instituted CBA, 7 teams make the playoffs in each conference with only the #1 overall seed earning a first-round bye.
Tiebreakers: Baltimore beat Kansas City in Week 3 and thus earns the #1 overall seed. Denver and Indianapolis did not play each other during the regular season, but the Broncos (.583) had a better winning percentage against the AFC than the Colts (.500), so they receive the #6 seed.
Wild Card Weekend
(7) Indianapolis Colts at (2) Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs defeated the Colts relatively easily in the 2018 Divisional Round as Patrick Mahomes earned his first career playoff victory by a 31-13 margin.
I see this one falling in the favor of Kansas City once again; though Indianapolis’ offense may have superior weapons compared to 2 years ago, its defense is essentially no better than in 2018. Good luck trying to keep up with the superpower unit that offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy leads, especially if fans are allowed at usually raucous, brumous Arrowhead Stadium.
(6) Denver Broncos at (3) Tennessee Titans
This would be the second matchup of these teams. Ironically, they meet in Week 1 with a fresh slate and would encounter one another once again with 16 games under their respective belts.
Can young gunslinger Drew Lock earn his first career playoff win? Playing in Nashville is a relatively tall task; though the Titans have not even hosted a home playoff matchup in 11 years, they have accumulated a 21-15 Nissan Stadium mark since 2016.
I’m sure former Titan Jurrell Casey would love for nothing more than to knock out the team that dealt him like a clod of excrement, but I think 2019’s Cinderella run will permit Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry to play with the same tranquility that led to an AFC Championship appearance.
This one would be air-tight, but I’ll take the more experienced Titans over the up-and-coming Broncos.
Sign me up for a playoff contest between arguably the top two defenses in the entire league. In fact, both units ranked in the top 5 in yards allowed/game and points permitted/game in 2019.
The mantra “Defense wins championships” has been promulgated for decades, but this game would actually likely lean towards whose offense has more pop.
Pittsburgh’s offense has, per se, nowhere to go but up after a dismal 2019. Under the tutelage of Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges, the Steelers’ offense didn’t even post an average of 300 yards/game, and Mike Tomlin’s team posited over 20 points a mere 7 times.
However, the 412 is buzzing as veteran Ben Roethlisberger returns along with several shiny new toys, including Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron. Fourth year Steelers James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster also look to rebound after down campaigns last year.
Buffalo’s offense was far from electric in 2019, as it only scored an average of 19.6 points in each game. But head coach Sean McDermott has faith that the acquisition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs can unlock a new echelon of play in 3rd year marksman Josh Allen.
To me, this matchup rests almost entirely upon Roethlisberger vs. Allen.
Roethlisberger has gone 13-8 in his lengthy career and is 5th in all-time postseason yards. In his only playoff appearance, Allen, on the other hand, posted 264 yards, 0 touchdowns and 0 interceptions against a Houston defense that was 24th in Football Outsiders’ Weighted Defense metric. His mediocre play very well may have cost Buffalo its first postseason win since before the turn of the century.
In one game with everything on the line, I would expect Roethlisberger’s extra experience to catapult the Steelers to their first Divisional berth since 2018.
(5) Pittsburgh Steelers at (1) Baltimore Ravens
There seem to be 3 teams who are not afraid of the powerhouse Ravens: the Chiefs who view themselves in a similar vein, the Titans who made a statement with a 28-12 win in M&T Bank Stadium last January, and the Steelers.
In Week 5 of 2019, Pittsburgh’s defense held reigning MVP Lamar Jackson to arguably his worst career outing. The modern-day Steel Curtain tightened the straps and applied the clamps to limit the beast of Jackson to 161 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions, 1 fumble (not lost) and a 54.9 quarterback rating.
Simply put, the Steelers’ defense is not scared of Jackson’s dual-threat ability. I very much expect Tomlin’s squad to perform similarly against the Baltimore behemoth in two 2020 encounters.
The only quagmire is whether or not Pittsburgh’s offense will be able to score enough points against John Harbaugh’s superb defense. The Ravens now have a bit of a hole at free safety after Earl Thomas’ feather-ruffling departure but still boast stars like Calais Campbell, Matthew Judon, Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.
Like the Steelers’ first playoff bout, this one very well could come down to quarterback play considering how evenly matched these two teams generally are. Roethlisberger would have already defeated Jackson’s 2018 classmate Allen, and Jackson himself has been far from graceful in the postseason.
Lamar Jackson in 2 playoff starts:— Bradley Locker (@Bradley_Locker) January 12, 2020
51.1 completion percentage, 559 passing yards, 198 rushing yards, 3 passing touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 4 fumbles (2 lost).
Oh, and he's 0-2. #NFLDivisionalRound #NFLPlayoffs #NFL100
The #1 seed in the AFC has not made the Big Game since Super Bowl LII, and I expect that trend to continue.
In another uber-close game, I’ll take the veteran Roethlisberger over a quarterback who has yet to earn a playoff win. The Steelers pull off a shocking upset of their bitter rivals en route to their first title game appearance since 2017.
(3) Tennessee Titans at (2) Kansas City Chiefs
Another rematch appears in the 2020 postseason schedule, as these two foes faced off in the 2019 AFC Championship Game.
Before that fight, I predicted Tennessee to upstage Kansas City in truly unbelievable fashion. My prognostication rested on workhorse Henry motoring the remarkable Titans to Super Bowl LIV in Miami. In reality, though, Chris Jones and the Chiefs’ defense held the Alabama product to only 69 yards.
Seeing as Jones was just signed to a 4-year, $80 million contract, Kansas City still has the defensive personnel to at least mitigate the Pro Bowl runner. The midseason return of corner Bashaud Breeland should provide Mahomes’ team with enough depth to lock down Tannehill in the passing game, and I have little concern about Mahomes & Co. to score after totaling 35 points against the Titans last January.
The Chiefs are still at the top of the pecking order in the AFC, and that should be bolstered by now making 3 consecutive AFC title games.
AFC Championship Game
(5) Pittsburgh Steelers at (2) Kansas City Chiefs
The Steelers’ magical run would have already included two gritty, tenacious victories over the Bills and the Ravens, and weariness from those two may spell trouble in the AFC Championship.
Two seasons ago, Pittsburgh’s defense was ravaged by Mahomes as the young stud made just his 2nd career start. In that Heinz Field showdown, the 2018 MVP became the youngest player ever to throw 6 touchdowns in a game.
Granted, Tomlin did not have Devin Bush, Joe Haden (a hamstring injury), Steven Nelson or Minkah Fitzpatrick at his disposal, but the Steelers were truly shell-shocked in that September matinee.
It should be noted that Roethlisberger also flourished against KC’s defense by posting a gaudy 452 yards and 3 touchdowns and the Steelers only lost by 7 points.
The Steelers do have the overall defensive talent to harangue Mahomes, but Pittsburgh’s offense may be the rate limiting factor. The Chiefs’ defense yielded at least 20 points in every postseason game last year, but Kansas City seems to be an overall cut above.
The motif of close matchups would likely continue here, but I’m not ready to give Mahomes his second career postseason loss at Arrowhead Stadium just yet.
AFC Champion: Chiefs
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
2. San Francisco 49ers (13-3)
3. Green Bay Packers (10-6)
4. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
6. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
7. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
Tiebreakers: The Saints defeated the 49ers in Week 10 and thus earn the #1 overall seed. Green Bay beat Philadelphia in Week 13, so it gains the 3rd seed. The Cowboys and Cardinals both finished 9-7, but Dallas prevailing over Arizona in Week 6 enables it to receive the 7th and final seed.
Wild Card Weekend
(7) Dallas Cowboys at (2) San Francisco 49ers
A battle of two stories franchises loaded with talent? This would be a fun one.
Dallas could certainly pull off the upset, but its secondary is arguably the worst in the entire league. The presence of superstar George Kittle certainly doesn’t ameliorate things as the Cowboys surrendered the second most yards to tight ends in 2019.
If this game were to become a shootout, the 49ers may be in trouble given their current wide receiver depth. However, a healthy Deebo Samuel and possibly even a new face gained via trade, like Cincinnati’s John Ross or Carolina’s Curtis Samuel, should enable the 49ers to eke out a close win.
(6) Seattle Seahawks at (3) Green Bay Packers
Another rematch of the 2019 playoffs would present a phenomenal contest yet again.
In the 2019 Divisional Round, it seemed all that halted Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll was the dearth of a solid running back. If injuries permit, Seattle should have the precise missing piece in Chris Carson.
Additionally, I worry about Aaron Rodgers’ ability to spark this offense considering he has only one consistent wide receiver in Davante Adams. Who would step up to match up, per se, against the stellar tandem of Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf? The answer is opaque at the moment.
Though they finished 13-3, the Packers seemed to play much worse than their record indicated in 2019. Several years of mounting optimism would come crumbling down as Green Bay would hypothetically face two hurdles in both a playoff loss at Lambeau Field and serious concerns about Rodgers’ long-term future.
(5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at (4) Philadelphia Eagles
Like the Packers, I am troubled by Philly’s lack of consistent receiver depth. The injury bug has returned to start 2020, as rookie Jalen Reagor recently suffered a torn labrum.
The Eagles, one would presume, are not afraid of Brady. After all, they usurped him in Super Bowl LII. But legendary quarterback Nick Foles, not Carson Wentz, played in that victory.
Speaking of Wentz, he, too, is sans a playoff win. His odds won’t be buoyed by Philadelphia having just one elite cornerback, Darius Slay, to try to stop Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
Despite making their first postseason appearance in 12 years, Brady mans the ship and leads Tampa to a January “W”.
(6) Seattle Seahawks at (1) New Orleans Saints
The Seahawks are a trendy pick to win the entire NFC after acquiring dynamo Jamal Adams, but their expected inability to accrue sacks and disrupt quarterbacks’ rhythms would be especially detrimental when facing the Saints’ premier offensive line.
In my view, New Orleans has the best roster in the entire league. The only obstacle they must overcome is a case of the postseason yips, as they’ve lost unceremoniously 3 straight seasons.
Yet Wilson has dropped two in a row against New Orleans, and Seattle has not won a game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in more than a decade and a half.
The Seahawks are certainly a phenomenal team, but they still feel a few pieces away from truly cementing themselves as a Super Bowl contender.
(5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at (2) San Francisco 49ers
Mentor vs. mentee. Expert vs. protégé. Starter vs. backup.
Brady vs. Garoppolo with an NFC Championship berth on the line? It hardly gets better than this.
Brady boasts weapons that are certainly better, but Garoppolo’s defense has the edge.
I can easily envisage this came coming down to who has the ball last, as both quarterbacks have playoff experience.
One element that may sway this game in San Francisco’s favor is that the 49ers permitted just 450 receiving yards to running backs in 2019, good for 2nd in the NFL. Brady, especially in recent years, loves getting his running backs involved in the passing game. This should hold true as Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy figure to factor into the Tampa passing game.
The Bucs are definitely hungry to be the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium, but the 49ers are ravenous and champing at the bit to redeem their Big Game loss. Kyle Shanahan’s team, too, should be more poised due to having more chemistry and possessing more unified playoff experience.
This would shape up to be an absolute classic, but I predict Shanahan to outpace fellow offensive wizard Bruce Arians in this Divisional matchup.
NFC Championship Game
(2) San Francisco 49ers at (1) New Orleans Saints
The NFC’s 1 and 2 seeds have squared off in the NFC Title Game for the last 3 seasons. Make it four in a row.
Can Sean Payton and Brees put an end to their postseason woes, or will Shanahan and Garoppolo earn consecutive Super Bowl bids?
I’m really tempted to pick the Saints in this Emmanuel Sanders Bowl, as he now pairs with All-Pro Michael Thomas to form a glittering duo. The 49ers, conversely, are like Spain in the 18th and 19th centuries in they are without gilded goods (receivers in this case).
The Saints certainly have the better offense, but the 49ers are superior on defense. The only gaps in New Orleans’ D are at cornerback and outside linebacker, especially after they failed to sign (or trade) for Jadeveon Clowney.
The 49ers were catalyzed by Sanders’ 157 yards in a 48-46 win over the Saints in NOLA last year, and his departure would be felt even more so in this matchup.
Though I expect the Saints to prevail over San Francisco in Week 10, I worry about Payton’s team’s mental makeup. New Orleans had some flare-ups before the season when discussions of the National Anthem abounded, Thomas has not been shy in terms of his social media usage.
Choosing this game is like truly flipping a coin. The Saints finally have the chance to earn Brees another Super Bowl ring, but I have a bad feeling they will get in their own way once again.
NFC Champion: 49ers
Super Bowl LV
(2) Kansas City Chiefs at (2) San Francisco 49ers
I really do hate picking a Super Bowl rematch, but it does seem quite possible in a year that has been nothing short of turbulent.
Though these squads would, again, take this gargantuan stage in the state of Florida, the venue and jersey colors would (likely) be different.
Mahomes and Reid likely would not have earned their first ring if not for the famed “2-3 Jet Chip Wasp” that resulted in a 44-yard gain by Tyreek Hill, one that spurred a 21-point run by KC.
If this clash were to happen again, the 49ers would likely be disadvantaged due to their aforementioned few solid receivers. Samuel stepped up with 53 rushing yards and 39 receiving yards in Super Bowl LIV, but a trusted, vaunted WR2 is necessary when playing the Chiefs, and the 49ers currently lack that.
San Francisco’s tenacity could absolutely put them over the edge, but Kansas City has shown no signs of regression whatsoever. I often opt for a more bodacious take, but it feels smarter to select the safer option here.
Fans, postgame embraces, sideline reporters or not, I’m picking Mahomes’ nucleus to become back-to-back World Champions.