Looking at the Minnesota Vikings’ 2020 opponents
Alas, the Minnesota Vikings season is over so it’s time to focus on 2020. Based on the final regular-season standings as well as the usual rotating AFC divisional opponents, we know the teams Minnesota will face next year. While there’s a lot still to be determined for every NFL team between now and the start of next season, we thought we’d take a quick look at each team the Vikings will be playing as they aim for their first-back-to-back playoff appearances since the 2008-09 seasons. (Teams listed by order of 2019 record.)
Detroit Lions (home & away)
2019 record: 3-12-1
Notable: The Lions had quarterback Matthew Stafford for just eight games. He did throw 19 touchdown passes over that span, which, if he could have kept up that pace, would project to his second-best total of his career (he had 41 TD passes in 2011). However, he was sidelined for the second half of the season with a back injury and Detroit went 0-8 in that span with backups Jeff Driskel (0-3) and David Blough (0-5). Running back Kerryon Johnson also missed significant playing time, appearing in the Lions’ first six games but then not again until the final two due to a knee injury which required a stint on injured reserve. Of course, he just topped 53 rushing yards in a game only once in his eight contests. Somehow Detroit still finished in the middle of the pack in offense.
Big question: Just what is this team’s identity? Head coach Matt Patricia was kept around but it’s not like the Lions have adopted the former defensive coordinator’s strength – Detroit allowed the second-most yards in the NFL, had just seven interceptions and were No. 26 in points allowed. Stafford has always been able to sling it but it’s not like the Lions have a lot of wins with him at QB (three playoff appearances since he was drafted in 2009).
Expectations: This franchise is kind of a mess. Yeah, they’ll get a last-place schedule, which could help, but then again they had a last-place schedule in 2019, too. More rough waters appear ahead.
Carolina Panthers (home)
2019 record: 5-11
Notable: Carolina didn’t wait until the end of the season to fire head coach Ron Rivera, who was ousted after 12 games. Interim coach Perry Fewell didn’t exactly right the ship, going 0-4 with three of the losses by 20+ points. Enter Matt Ruhle. The highly successful college head coach was given a lucrative, multiyear contract to turn the franchise around.
Big question: Who will be the team’s leaders? Quarterback Cam Newton is a free agent. Will he return and how effective can he still be? Injuries seem to have taken their toll on the one-time MVP. On defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had 100+ tackles in each of his eight seasons, surprisingly retired from football. Those are some big shoes to fill.
Expectations: Ruhle has done amazing things at previous stops (see: Temple, Baylor, etc.) and the Panthers do still have Christian McCaffrey, but this figures to be an uphill climb.
Jacksonville Jaguars (home)
2019 record: 6-10
Notable: From 2008-16, Jacksonville didn’t have a winning record in any season. But with a new head coach in Doug Marrone and a strong defense which included such young up-and-coming players like Jalen Ramsey and Donte Fowler, the Jaguars looked to be on the rise. Two losing seasons later, Fowler (2018) and Ramsey (2019) were both traded during the season, the team’s culture was in disarray and top executive Tom Coughlin was fired. Marrone remains. As does running back Leonard Fournette, who will be entering his fourth season coming off a campaign in which he set career highs in rushing yards (1,152), receptions (76) and receiving yards (522). Of course, his offensive coordinator in 2019, John DeFilippo (remember him?) was canned by Marrone.
Big question: The quarterback will be …? Jacksonville gave Super Bowl LVII MVP Nick Foles a big contract last offseason only to see him get hurt in the opener and later benched due to a lack of effectiveness. The Jaguars didn’t win any of the four games he started. His replacement, Gardner Minshew, a rookie sixth-round pick, gave the team some juice early on but the league quickly adjusted and his last few appearances were a mixed bag.
Expectations: The ascent didn’t last long. This operation is a mess. Like the Vikings, Jacksonville needs to cut some salary before the start of the league year. It’s hard to see the Jaguars making another climb back up, at least in the near future.
Atlanta Falcons (home)
2019 record: 7-9
Notable: Head coach Dan Quinn appeared to be a dead man walking … and then the Falcons won six of their last eight games including the last four. Thus, Quinn gets to return for another year despite back-to-back losing seasons. The defensive-minded coach headed a team which was first in the NFL in passing attempts and third in passing yards. Running the ball was another story, as Atlanta finished 30th in yards and averaged just 3.8 a carry (26th overall). The defense was fine but linebacker Vic Beasley, who led the team in sacks with eight, is scheduled to be a free agent.
Big question: Can the offense keep churning? Running back appears to be a position of need (lead back Devonta Freeman gained just 656 yards with a 3.6 average). Quarterback Matt Ryan did throw for 4,466 yards (his ninth straight season of over 4,000 yards) and topped 600 pass attempts for the sixth time in the last eight years, throwing 14 interceptions, his most since 2015. Ryan turns 35 in May. Can he keep it up? He does have a good pair of wide receivers in Julio Jones (31 next season) and Calvin Ridley, but pass-catching tight end Austin Hooper will be a free agent.
Expectations: It’s hard to say. Will the real Falcons please stand up? Is it the one which got off to a horrendous start or the team which rallied around its coach in the second half? This feels like a team which could go in any direction in 2020. Having a second-place schedule, even with a losing record, won’t help, though.
Indianapolis Colts (away)
2019 record: 7-9
Notable: Indianapolis has one of the youngest defenses in the league but it’s a solid one. Each of the top-seven tacklers in 2019 was 24 years old or younger, including rising stars linebacker Darius Leonard and safety Malik Hooker. The offense suffered a bit in part due to an injury to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. The other part, well, that leads us to …
Big question: Who will be the quarterback? Andrew Luck surprisingly retired before the start of the season and quite frankly it’s sort of amazing that the Colts went out and won five of their first seven games. But the new starter, Jacoby Brissett, wasn’t overly impressive (2,942 yard passing, 88.0 QB rating) and the team dropped five of its last six contests. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Indy draft a young QB.
Expectations: The QB quandary puts a lot of unknowns on the Colts, but they have the pieces, especially on defense, and cap space (currently the most in the NFL) to be a playoff contender. Re-signing free-agent-to-be left tackle Anthony Castonzo wouldn’t hurt, either.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (away)
2019 record: 7-9
Notable: In head coach Bruce Arians’ first year as head coach, Tampa Bay finished third in both points and yards. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The fact that quarterback Jameis Winston threw for over 5,000 yards (5,109) with 33 touchdowns? That was a surprise. Both Mike Evans (1,157) and Chris Godwin (1,333) topped 1,000 receiving yards despite a largely ineffective run game (3.7 yards per carry). Passing games under Arians = money.
Big question: Who will be the quarterback? OK, yeah, we’re laying it on thick with the QBs here but it’s the $64,000 question for the Bucs – will they bring back former No. 1 overall pick Winston. Yes, he led the league in passing yards but also had an NFL-high 30 interceptions, including 10 over his last four games. His last play of 2019? A pick-six in overtime. Not exactly going into the offseason on a high note and Arians has been non-committal to a potential reunion in 2020.
Expectations: Talk about unknown especially not knowing the QB. But Arians is a good coach and will surely find a way to have this team competitive. Tampa Bay also has a lot of cap room to help its cause (on the flip side, the Bucs also have a lot of impending free agents). We’re not going to say Tampa Bay will be a playoff contender, but we wouldn’t bat an eye if it is.
Chicago Bears (home & away)
2019 record: 8-8
Notable: The Bears took a step backward in nearly every facet. Mitchell Trubisky regressed instead of progressing in Year 3, the defense wasn’t as dynamic without former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and head coach Matt Nagy came under fire for some coaching tactics. It all led to four fewer wins than the season before and a ton of questions about Chicago – mainly, was 2018 a one-year anomaly?
Big question: Trubisky or not Trubisky? Bears fans have to shake their head every time they see highlights of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, both taken lower in the first round than Trubisky (who Chicago traded up from No. 3 to No. 2 to grab) in the 2017 draft. Nagy seems tied into Trubisky for 2020. It’s a hard sell after a season in which the QB threw for only 3,138 yards with 17 TDs and 10 interceptions for an 83.0 QB rating (he had a 95.4 in 2018), which ranked 28th in the league among qualifiers.
Expectations: Don’t count us in as believers in Trubisky. Chicago will need a herculean effort from its defense to make waves in 2020. Another middling .500 record (or worse) could well be on the horizon.
Dallas Cowboys (home)
2019 record: 8-8
Notable: Jason Garrett was the head coach of Dallas for 9 1/2 years in which time the Cowboys made the playoffs three times and won just two postseason games. The fact in this world of quick firings he lasted as long as he did is amazing, all things considered. The Cowboys ranked first in yards and sixth in points and ninth in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed in 2019. And finished .500. Even that was too much for Jerry Jones.
Big question: Can Mike McCarthy be the one to lead the Cowboys over the hump? Sound familiar, Vikings fans? It was just two years ago that McCarthy was criticized for not getting the most out of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. Now he’s the savior for the Cowboys? Maybe the truth is somewhere in between.
Expectations: Dallas does have talent, although the Cowboys need to give a new contract to QB Dak Prescott, who is entering his final year, and have several key free agents, including wide receivers Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb, cornerback Byron Jones and defense end Robert Quinn. Dallas won’t be able to keep all those guys but in a weaker NFC East should still be a contender for the division crown (no team has repeated as NFC East winner since Philadelphia, this year’s division champ, from 2001-04) and thus will be a playoff contender. Super Bowl contender? Let’s see how the offseason and the infusion of McCarthy goes first.
Tennessee Titans (home)
2019 record: 9-7
Notable: To say things turned around when Ryan Tannehill took over as starting quarterback would be an understatement. With Tannehill under center, the Titans closed the season with a 7-3 record to earn a wild-card spot and eventually made its way into the AFC championship game. On the season, Tannehill completed 201 of 286 passes (70.3%) for 2,742 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions for a phenomenal passer rating of 117.5. He didn’t have a lot of passing yards in Tennessee’s two playoff wins but did throw a TD pass in the 20-13 win over New England and had two scoring tosses plus a 1-yard TD run in beating Baltimore 28-12. Oh, and the Titans also had the NFL’s leading rusher (despite missing one game) in Derrick Henry (1,540 yards, 16 TDs) as well as potential rookie of the year wide receiver A.J Brown (1,051 yards, 8 TDs).
Big question: Can Tennessee keep this team together? It was an amazing ride the Titans went on, but they have several key pieces who are scheduled to be free agents, none bigger than Tannehill and Henry. But there’s also starting right tackle Jack Conklin and cornerback Logan Ryan, one of the main cogs of a decent defense. The Titans do have a lot of cap space available so it’s not out of the realm that they put the band back together.
Expectations: Presuming the Titans can keep the roster at least mostly intact, based on their 2019 run it’d be hard to discount Tennessee than anything other than a Super Bowl contender in 2020.
Houston Texans (away)
2019 record: 10-6
Notable: When Houston lost to Indianapolis 21-7 in a 2018 wild-card playoff game, it was reported that it was the first time since he was a sophomore in high school that Deshaun Watson suffered a loss by more than one score as a starting quarterback. It happened three times in 2019 – a Week 11 41-7 loss at Baltimore, a Week 14 38-24 defeat at home to Denver and in the AFC divisional round, 51-31 at Kansas City. The issue here, for the most part, is not Watson, who threw for over 3,800 yards with 26 TDs and rushed for over 400 more with seven TDs. Including the playoffs, the Texans allowed 30+ points in seven games. Only four teams had more such games: Miami, New York Giants, Tampa Bay and Washington (Arizona and Carolina also had seven).
Big question: How much does J.J. Watt have left in the tank? One of the game’s most dominant defensive players from 2012-15, Watt, who turns 31 in March, has played a full season just once in the last four years. He’s played a combined 16 regular-season games, including eight in 2019, in the other three. Even when healthy he didn’t exactly put up Watt-like numbers. In eight games he had 24 tackles, four sacks and four other tackles for loss (on the flip side he did have 21 QB hits). Those numbers are easy to project to a full season, presuming he kept that pace; Watt’s career low in a full season for tackles is 56, sacks 10.5 and TFL 13 – two of those (tackles an TFL) occurring his rookie year.
Expectations: Any team with Watson and his core of receivers, led by DeAndre Hopkins (1,165 yards, 7 TDs), is going to be a contender even with a mediocre defense. If the Texans can boost up that side of the ball (although Houston’s first pick in the draft won’t be until late in the second round), there’s always the potential for greatness … as long as Bill O’Brien doesn’t get in the way.
Seattle Seahawks (away)
2019 record: 11-5
Notable: Russell Wilson truly is amazing. He’s been a starter since Day 1 and has never missed a game in his career. In his eight seasons, Seattle has had 10+ regular-season wins in seven of those. The exception was 2017 when the Seahawks were 9-7 (also the only year a Wilson-led team hasn’t made the playoffs). In the past you could try and give credit to Seattle’s defense. Remember the Legion of Boom? They’re long gone. The Seahawks finished 26th in yards allowed and 22nd in points allowed in 2019.
Big question: Can Seattle continue to keep Wilson healthy? It’s a good thing Wilson is mobile. He was sacked 48 times this past season and 51 in 2018. In fact, he’s been sacked more than 40 times every year except his rookie season (33). The Seahawks’ offensive line was iffy at best, although left tackle Duane Brown (when healthy) is solid. Starting left guard Mike Iupati and starting right tackle Germain Ifedi are both free agent. Seattle desperately needs to upgrade the O-line and perhaps figure out a way to keep free-agent-to-be Jadeveon Clowney, who could certainly help out a defense that needs all the help it can get.
Expectations: Did we mention the Seahawks have had a winning record every year since Wilson arrived, making the playoffs in seven of eight seasons? Yeah, expect more of the same in 2020. We don’t know how they’ll do it – beyond Wilson – but based on history it’d be dumb to ever count out a Wilson-led Seattle team.
Green Bay Packers (home & away)
2019 record: 13-3
Notable: There was no buyer’s remorse for the Packers with free-agent signees Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith. The linebackers were everything Green Bay had hoped for and more. Za’Darius had 13 1/2 sacks in the regular season and Preston Smith 12. It was the first time two Packers had 10+ sacks in the same season since Bryce Paup (11) and Reggie White (13) in 1993. Led by the Smiths, the Packers finished ninth in points allowed. The Vikings tallied just 16 and 10 points in their two matchups with Green Bay.
Big question: This might be strange to say about a 13-3 team which reached the NFC championship but just how real were the 2019 Packers? They beat two teams with a winning record in the regular season — Minnesota, twice, and Kansas City without Patrick Mahomes. Green Bay only played two other teams with a winning record and lost both, to Philadelphia at home and at San Francisco. The Packers have some weapons in running back Aaron Jones and wide receiver Davante Adams, but the rest of the offense is pedestrian and even Aaron Rodgers hardly looked like his usual self (third-lowest passer rating since becoming a starter and lowest QBR of his career). It will be interesting to see how this team does in 2020 with a first-place, and not third-place, schedule.
Expectations: All that being said in the above blurb, we fully expect Green Bay to be playoff contenders once again in 2020, especially in an NFC North where we’re not big believers in Chicago or Detroit.
New Orleans Saints (away)
2019 record: 13-3
Notable: The Saints reached 30 points in 11 of 16 regular-season games – no other team had more than eight such instances. New Orleans hit 30 points in nine of the 10 games in which Drew Brees played in the entirety (the Saints lost 27-9 to the Rams in the game Brees got hurt – he threw only five passes – and 26-9 at home to Atlanta in Week 10). Oh, the Saints also didn’t reach 30 in their playoff loss to Minnesota. The Saints’ offense wasn’t just explosive (third in points, ninth in yards) but they only turned the ball over eight times – fewest in the NFL.
Big question: Will Brees return and how much longer can he keep this up? Tom Brady is the only over-40-year-old on the free agent market. A reunion with Brees seems likely but backup Teddy Bridgewater is also a free agent – might New Orleans finally want to get younger? Doubtful. Although he did miss four games due to injury, Brees didn’t have the drop-off like, say, Brady and Rodgers had in 2019. For the third straight year, Brees led the league in completion percentage (743%, his fourth consecutive season at 70% or better), averaged 7.9 yards per attempt and had a career-high 116.3 passer rating.
Expectations: If Brees returns and the big weapons such as wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara stay healthy, New Orleans should be considered a top Super Bowl contender. Unless the Saints meet the Vikings in the playoffs, of course. We’ve seen how that goes.