First Installment – AFC East and South
Cataclysm. That is my word for Year 2020. The world as we knew it has careened off the rails of convention and lurched into the wilds of uncertainty, upheaval and instability. Covid-19, empty stadiums, societal lockdown, civic unrest, economic chaos, international brinkmanship, murder hornets, political brick-batting and worst of all, Tom Brady in a Buccaneers uniform! What next, alien invasion?
Thank the dear Lord for pro football. Kneel or don’t, replay review or not, on-side kicks or 4th-and-15, I DON’T CARE. JUST KICK THE BALL ALREADY!! We need something uncontroversial and pleasantly familiar to root for, before we all lose our minds. Baseball is busy displaying how tone-deaf and self-absorbed they are, and why it is no longer America’s pastime. THIS, the NFL, is America’s game. Let’s sink our teeth into some good football talk, and get ready to root FOR something instead of AGAINST everything.
AFC EAST – This is the logical starting point, since it represents the single biggest power shift in the NFL. The Patriots’ perennial lockdown (sick of that term yet?) on this division is over. The AFC East is open for business again, and the other red, white & blue team looks to be the new bully. Buffalo has relentlessly built a really good football team over the last several years, plugging holes with quality drafts and grooming their gunslinging, mobile QB. They made a very smart move adding Stefon Diggs to Cole Beasley and an energetic young receiver corps, giving Allen a mature, top-rank receiver to open the field up and create space. Zack Moss strengthens a solid running game further, and that defense will have a lot of teams saying ‘I can’t breathe.’
New England is backing Jarrett Stidham, but just hauled Cam Newton off the unemployment line. Nobody really knows what they have under center, as Stidham is untested, and Newton is very talented but older, often inaccurate and doesn’t stay healthy. Brian Hoyer is Covid insurance at best, and not much of that. What they DO have is much the same offense (or lack thereof) from last season, which couldn’t do anything in the Red Zone. If Nkeal Harry doesn’t have a bust-out year, we’re watching the sun set on Julian Edelman’s career. He CANNOT be asked to carry the bulk of the receiving load as a hospital-pass slot receiver, the most dangerous job in the NFL. Sony Michel isn’t Nick Chubb, James White won’t have Brady dumping off play-action darts to him, and the tight ends look like loose ends. I don’t see points here. Pats can’t fill their empty pocket… or the end zone.
I see the Dolphins making a case for second place, maybe leapfrogging New England. Significant upgrades at key positions have continued, with Van Noy leading the linebackers. Tua can come along at his own pace, because Fitzmagic is now the second-best QB in the division (if Newton is healthy). You heard me. Brian Flores acts like a man with a plan, and that is rare on this team. Look for steady improvement here. Flipper flops no more.
The Jets are… the Jets. I don’t believe in Adam Gace, and I’m starting to not believe in Darnoldnucleosis. Tools he has in spades, but the pro game begins inside his helmet. There’s no telling who resides there these days. The Jets are bad bets.
AFC SOUTH – Tennessee impressed so much last season. Tannehill was Comeback Player of 2019, ‘De-Wreck’ Henry laid waste to D-lines and Secondaries, and this whole team just blossomed under the clever tutelage of Mike Vrabel. I like brainy, fearless head coaches, and the qualities that made Vrabel so valuable to New England when we rescued him from obscurity in Pittsburgh continue to serve him well. I don’t believe Houston is still the better team in this division, with Hopkins gone. Vrabel will enable.
The Texans are still very strong, but a special talent receiver like Hopkins is very hard to replace. Brandon Cooks is good, but he’s never been in Hopkins’ league. Deshaun Watson is becoming the player he was hyped to be, and that is a plus for the league, after so many high draftees flame out. Key Texans are on the 17th green of their careers (Watt, Fells, Thomas), and Billy O’Brien still has to prove he can go farther. Still bullish on the Bull.
Indianapolis is..a big question mark. Solid coaching, and they are among the top three teams in number of returning players. One that isn’t from last year is aging slinger Phillip Rivers, who has had a distinguished career that seems to be rapidly extinguishing. In an age of 20-year QB careers, just how much zip can Ol’ Phil still put on the ball, and can he find enough of his own jerseys to throw at? New team, new offense, and new city don’t always produce new results or renewed vigor. Call me a doubter, and call Rivers a place-holder. I hope I’m wrong, because the Colts are a good team, in a tough division. Here’s hope for the Horseshoes.
Then we have the Jacksonville Draguars. This poor franchise. They have more ups and downs than the rockets on the Space Coast where they live. Name me five Jaguars not called Fournette or Minshew. Yup. And they spent a king’s ransom on Nick Foles, who wears a Bears jersey this season. Time for Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone to move up or move out. It’s claws out, or skinned cats for Slaxonville this year.
Watch for the next installment!
-Pigskin Pundit (Nate Clark)