Change is inevitable in the NFL, especially when it comes to the postseason. The race for the playoffs in 2020 is set to be especially exciting in the NFC.
Headlining the race this season is Tom Brady’s addition to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, making the NFC South an incredibly interesting division. The NFC East is set to be up for grabs as the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles were separated by just a single game last season. In the NFC West, all four teams could have a shot at the postseason, with the Los Angeles Rams attempting to return to Super Bowl form, and with Kyler Murray’s Arizona Cardinals on the rise.
The seventh playoff position, or third Wild Card spot, makes the race even more interesting. Last season, the Rams would have qualified for the playoffs under the new seeding rules, with the Cowboys, Bears, Buccaneers, and Falcons sitting two games or less behind them.
In this sense, only two teams have to be removed from the playoff equation for three new teams to enter. Be sure to check out our predictions on the AFC side as well to see which teams might be on the move in 2020.
In: Dallas Cowboys
Missing the playoffs in 2019 wasn’t an issue of talent for the Dallas Cowboys. In many ways, one could argue they were a better team than the Philadelphia Eagles. Dallas outscored their opponents by a whopping 113 points last season despite an even 8-8 record. Meanwhile, the 9-7 Eagles scored just 31 more points than their opponents.
The Cowboys missed the postseason by just a single game last season, and can’t really blame anyone besides themselves. The good news is that they’re primed to make another run at an NFC East division title in 2020.
Dallas had trouble beating good teams in 2019, but often played hard and lost in close fashion. Some of these heart-wrenching losses included:
- 12-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints
- 24-22 loss to the New York Jets
- 13-9 loss to the New England Patriots
- 31-24 loss to the Chicago Bears
- 17-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles
If just one of those one-score games had a different outcome, the Cowboys could have been a playoff team last season. In addition, if a few of those games, specifically against the Eagles, Saints, and Packers went differently, Dallas would have been in competition for a first-round bye.
Just bringing back last year’s team would be enough to try again for the playoffs in 2020, but Dallas has gotten even better with some reinforcements on the way. Free agency saw the Cowboys add some high-profile talent on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, defensive backs Maurice Canady, Daryl Worley and Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, and the addition of the retired defensive end Aldon Smith will help to improve what was already the NFC East’s stingiest scoring defense.
Dallas used most of the 2020 NFL Draft to add depth at those same positions, but not before using their first-round pick to select Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. Lamb will be tasked with filling holes in the offense left by the departures of Tavon Austin and Randall Cobb.
At worst, the Cowboys could win a relatively weak NFC East with eight-to-ten wins. At best, they could be one of the strongest teams in the NFC this season.
In: Arizona Cardinals
While the wins may have not come very consistently, 2019’s first overall pick Kyler Murray had an impressive rookie season. He led his team to a 5-10-1 record, with five one-score losses that could have flipped the script of his first campaign.
Arizona is still a step behind the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, so while an NFC West title is unlikely, one of the NFC’s three Wild Card spots could be an attainable goal. The biggest battle the Cardinals will face will be within their own division: The aforementioned 49ers and Seahawks are among the conference’s best teams, and the Los Angeles Rams are just a season removed from a Super Bowl appearance.
The Cardinals success in 2020 will depend on the continued development of Murray, and improvements on defense. Arizona built largely through the draft, taking no skill players in the first six rounds. Instead, 8th overall pick linebacker Isaiah Simmons, 72nd overall pick offensive tackle Josh Jones, and a pair of defensive tackles selected in the fourth round will help strengthen the core of the Cardinals offense and defense.
In a flashy and stunning trade, Arizona lost running back David Johnson but gained wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans. Even with Larry Fitzgerald’s advanced age, the Cardinals passing offense has the opportunity to be electric.
If the Cardinals don’t make the playoffs in 2020, it will be due to the difficulty of playing in the NFC West. It would be unlikely that all three Wild Card teams come from one division, so the Cardinals would have to at least beat out the Rams in the standings to make a run at a playoff spot. If Arizona can find a way to win nine or more games, Murray may make the leap to the postseason in just his second season.
In: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This was the easiest pick to make, and not just because Tom Brady is the starting quarterback.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 7-9 in 2019; enough for a share of ninth place in the NFC. With just a couple more wins, they would’ve been in position for a 7th place or higher finish, which in 2020, will get you into the playoffs.
The Buccaneers won seven games despite a whopping 30 interceptions from quarterback Jameis Winston. Cutting that turnover number down likely would’ve allowed Tampa Bay to enjoy a winning record.
Then there’s the matter of how close those losses came. In fact, six of the Buccaneers’ nine losses came by a single score; including a one-point loss to the New York Giants, six-point loss in a thriller against the Seattle Seahawks, and single-score losses to the playoff bound New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans. Simply put, the Buccaneers could have won nine or more games and qualified for the postseason last season.
If Tampa Bay went at it with roughly the same roster in 2020, they would have had a chance to make the playoffs. Instead, Tampa Bay went all-in.
Tom Brady may be past his prime, but having a six-time Super Bowl Champion at the helm will change the team’s culture for the better. In addition, Brady is joined by one of his all-time favorite targets in Rob Gronkowski, who came out of retirement to be traded to Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers used their top selection in the 2020 NFL Draft to plug up some holes in their roster as well:
- 1st Round, 17th overall: OT Tristan Wirfs
- 2nd Round, 45th overall: S Antoine Winfield Jr.
- 3rd Round, 76th overall: RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn
- 5th Round, 161st overall: WR Tyler Johnson
Tampa Bay’s first four selections will likely be asked to make an immediate impact. While it’s up for debate if the Buccaneers will challenge the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South crown, a Wild Card spot at minimum (and nine-to-eleven wins) seems likely for Tampa Bay in the upcoming season.
Out: Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles won the NFC East by a single game last season, despite scoring less points than the Cowboys, while also allowing more. It’s not that Philadelphia enjoyed a “lucky” season, but Dallas certainly endured an unlucky one.
We’ve already discussed why the Cowboys are already a talented team, with aspirations to do better and win the NFC East in 2020. Where does that leave the Eagles?
The NFC East seems like the least likely of the four NFC divisions to send multiple teams to the postseason, even with three Wild Card spots available. The NFC North and NFC South each have three teams you could argue are playoff-bound in 2020, and the NFC West could even have four teams that look better than the Eagles.
As a result, the Eagles need to beat out the Cowboys for the NFC East crown if they hope to make the playoffs in the upcoming season. Unfortunately for them, the Cowboys have the better overall roster.
Also at Philadelphia’s disadvantage is their first-place finish last season, which puts the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers on their schedule. By virtue of their second-place finish, the Cowboys will play the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons. It’s not a huge disparity, but on paper, the Eagles are looking at a tougher schedule.
The Eagles made a few additions in free agency (DT Javon Hargrave, LB Jatavis Brown, S Will Parks, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman) and the draft (WR Jalen Reagor, QB Jalen Hurts, LB Davion Taylor, S K’Von Wallace), but also saw a number of key departures. Wide receiver Nelson Agholor, cornerback Ronald Darby, linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, and running backs Jordan Howard and Darren Spoles are all no longer on the roster.
At best, the Eagles offseason didn’t make them better or worse. However, if some of their new acquisitions don’t pan out, Philadelphia could win less games in 2020, even with a 17-game schedule.
Out: Green Bay Packers
In what might be the most surprising pick, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers could go from 13-3 (2nd in the NFC), to outside the playoff picture in 2020, even with seven spots available.
The Packers made strides in 2019 due to an emphasis on defense in the previous offseason. Green Bay allowed 20 or more points just eight times in the 2019 regular season, and still went 5-3 in those games. The defensive emphasis paid off, and allowed the Packers to reach the NFC Championship.
Green Bay failed to show up against the 49ers, but being a game away from the Super Bowl is hardly a pitiful position. So, what did the Packers do to get better in 2020?
In the first round of the draft, Green Bay selected quarterback Jordan Love, who may not see the field in a few years. In the second round, running back A.J. Dillon was chosen, who slots in as the Packers second or third string running back. Even the third round pick, used on tight end Josiah Deguara, could have gone further in addressing the Packers immediate needs.
The botched draft may not be so horrible for the Packers long-term aspirations. However, for a team that was one win away from a Super Bowl appearance, it feels like a slap in the face to both Packers fans and Aaron Rodgers himself.
The Packers made some free agent additions, but mostly just to offset the loss of a few key players.
- Out: OT Bryan Bulaga, ILB Blake Martinez, OLB Kyler Fackrell, ILB B.J. Goodson, FS Ibraheim Campbell, OT Jason Spriggs, TE Jimmy Graham
- In: OT Rick Wagner, LB Christian Kirksey, WR Devin Funchess, DT Gerald Willis, DE Treyvon Hester
Specifically on the defensive side of the ball, Green Bay appears to be taking a step back. Without an elite defense, the Packers won’t win 13 games this season. If things don’t fall in their favor, they may struggle to win ten games.
I only have one NFC North team going to the 2020 postseason in the Minnesota Vikings. However, both the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears are expected to see improvements in their win totals this season. This could leave the Packers as an above-average team that just misses the cut for the playoffs.
Besides their usual NFC North opponents, the Packers will face the NFC South, the AFC South, and by virtue of finishing first last year, the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. The Eagles handed the Packers their first loss of 2019, while the 49ers beat the Packers by a combined score of 74-28 over two games last season.
Be sure to check out our picks for the 2020 AFC playoffs as well!