Predicting anything related to the NFL is often a fool’s errand, so predicting what will be unpredictable is the smarter approach. With the 2020 NFL regular season (hopefully) less than four months away, here’s a look at 10 wild cards that await.
1. New England Patriots: The Pats might have been a wild card even if they kept Tom Brady. After all, Brady is looking to be the first quarterback in NFL history to truly excel at the age of 42, and New England lost five of its last nine games (including the playoffs) last year.
On paper, with second-year fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham under center, this is a mediocre team at best. But is anybody really comfortable ruling them out? That’s never easy to do with Bill Belichick involved.
2. Actually, the entire AFC East: The Patriots could go 12-4 or 4-12, but so could the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, and New York Jets. All three teams have arguably more talent than New England, but often fall apart against Goliath.
The Bills should be good, but could fall apart if Josh Allen doesn’t deliver.
The Jets are in a similar boat with Sam Darnold.
And the Dolphins have been completely overhauled. They’re trying to prove that a 5-4 finish to the 2019 campaign wasn’t a fluke, and they have a lot more talent now.
Who the hell knows what will happen in this division?
3. Rob Gronkowski: One of the greatest tight ends in NFL history is coming out of retirement to join Brady in Tampa Bay, and many are naturally expecting fireworks. But Gronk was away from the game for a year, he’s 31 now, and it’s important to remember he’s wasn’t the same in his last season. He averaged just 3.6 catches, 52.5 yards per game, and scored just three touchdowns in 2018. He could be rejuvenated after some time away, or he could look like a shell of his former self.
4. Gardner Minshew II: The sixth-round pick became a cult sensation with some magical moments as a rookie with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but there’s evidence that was an anomaly. The Moustache completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes and posted a sub-90 passer rating in December, and yet the Jags traded away Nick Foles and made no effort to replace him. It looks as though they’re riding Minshew Mania, which is likely to either shock football world or blow up. A Cam Newton signing can change all this, but there’s no indication that’s on the horizon.
5. Cleveland Browns, of course: Isn’t that the case every year? Especially 2019 and 2020, because the Browns have contender-level talent but continue to disappoint. This offseason was incredibly productive, and they now appear to be destined to get it right with a more stable coaching staff and more support for young quarterback Baker Mayfield. But if Mayfield can’t shake out of a sophomore slump or the locker room combusts again, it could be more pain at the factory of sadness.
6. Ben Roethlisberger: Not only is Big Ben fighting to come back from major elbow surgery, but he’s tasked with proving that he wasn’t losing it before suffering said injury. The future Hall of Fame quarterback threw a league-high 16 interceptions in 2018, and looked defeated early in 2019. He’s doesn’t appear to be in great shape, and he’s now 38. What does he have left?
7. J.J. Watt: The oft-injured former superstar was able to make it back from a torn pectoral in order to participate in last year’s playoffs, but he’s now missed 32 games the last four seasons. He’s now 31, but he ranked near the top of the league with 21 quarterback hits before suffering that injury in 2019. Wouldn’t be crazy if he pushed for a fourth Defensive Player of the Year award, but it’s becoming harder to rely on the guy.
8. Matthew Stafford: Ditto for this guy, who was experiencing by far the best season of his career before a back injury forced him to the injured reserve in November. There were rumors of a trade request this offseason, and you’d have to wonder if this marriage is on its last legs, considering that the Lions have won zero playoff games in 11 seasons with the talented Stafford at quarterback. Could he make a late-career MVP charge, or will it all fall apart again?
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brady is 41, Gronk is 31, the defense is boom-or-bust, and nobody knows how all involved parties will jell.
10. ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth: Nobody even knows who will be calling or analyzing these games, but it won’t be Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. ESPN is smartly moving on, but there’s no guarantee the curse of bad booths will be broken.
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