Looking at the Green Bay Packers’ 2020 opponents
While the Green Bay Packers’ season came to an end in the NFC championship game, it’s never too early to think about 2020. Based on the final regular-season standings as well as the usual rotating AFC divisional opponents, we know the teams Green Bay 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 Packers will be playing as they aim for their first-back-to-back NFC North crowns since winning the division four straight years from 2011-14. They’ll have to do it with a first-place schedule, of course. (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). In his career against Green Bay, Stafford averages 288 passing yards per game and has 34 TDs and 19 INTs with an 89.3 passer rating. Despite Stafford’s prolonged absence (and the play of the other QBs) and a so-so running attach (Kerryon Johnson led with 403 yards but gained just 3.6 yards per carry), 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. While more rough waters appear ahead, we’d be remiss not to mention that even with how bad the Lions were in 2019, the Packers won both their matchups against Detroit on last-second field goals by Mason Crosby. Yikes.
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 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. Will he lean on Christian McCaffrey as much as Rivera did? The running back led the NFL in touches with 402 (he had 326 in 2018) while producing over 2,300 yards from scrimmage with 19 touchdowns – tied with the Packers’ Aaron Jones for most (although McCaffrey had more points thanks to one two-point conversion).
Big question: Who will be the team’s leaders? Quarterback Cam Newton is a free agent. Will he return and, if so, how effective can he still be? Injuries seem to have taken their toll on the one-time MVP. If not, who is the QB? Kyle Allen doesn’t seem to be the answer. 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 McCaffrey, but this figures to be an uphill climb.
Jacksonville Jaguars (home)
2019 record: 6-10
Notable: Jacksonville went out and signed a former Super Bowl MVP in quarterback Nick Foles and got running back Leonard Fournette more involved. Fournette did set career highs in rushing yards (1,152), receptions (76) and receiving yards (522) but Foles didn’t exactly work out, in part due to injury and in part to ineffectiveness. The Jaguars scored 13 or fewer points seven times – the most of any NFL team (and were unsurprisingly 0-7 in those games) and had 20 or fewer points in three other games. The defense used to be stellar but after dealing Dante Fowler Jr. and Jalen Ramsey the past two seasons, Jacksonville slipped to 24th in the league in yards allowed and 21st in points allowed.
Big question: The quarterback will be …? The Jaguars didn’t win any of the four games Foles 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. Jacksonville will have a new offensive coordinator as John DeFilippo is out and former Washington head coach Jay Gruden is in.
Expectations: Once one of the rising teams in the NFL, the ascent didn’t last long for the Jags. This operation is a mess (Tom Coughlin was let go after it was determined the team’s culture was less than stellar). 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 yards 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 a 83.0 QB rating (he had a 95.4 in 2018), which ranked 28th in the league among qualifiers. The Packers don’t mind Trubisky behind center – last season he had a 56.12% completion rate with 1 TD and 3 INT and in his career is 1-4 against Green Bat with a passer rating of 80.0.
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.
Philadelphia Eagles (home)
2019 record: 9-7
Notable: Quarterback Carson Wentz (who played all 16 games for the first time since his rookie year in 2016) threw for over 4,000 yards – but precious few of those went to wide receivers. Philadelphia didn’t have any wideout have 500 yards receiving (Alshon Jeffrey led with 490). The Eagles did have three players with 500+ receiving yards – tight ends Zach Ertz (916) and Dallas Goedert (607) and running back Miles Sanders (509). Defensively, no player had more than 8.5 sacks but 10 had at least two sacks.
Big question: Can the Eagles become a speedier team? Philadelphia had just four plays all season which went for 50+ yards – and two came in the season opener on passes to DeSean Jackson, who would then miss most of the rest of the season due to injury. The other two were by Sanders. Jackson will be back, but he also just turned 33. In order to compete in the NFL – or at least go far – it helps to have speed (just look at the NFC championship game). Philly has next to none. Will that change or will it be another year of a lot of passing to tight ends?
Expectations: The Eagles are the defending NFC East champs. Although no team has repeated as a winner in that division since 2004, the NFC East is a bit watered down and it’ll will likely come down to either Philly or Dallas taking the crown in 2020. Philadelphia has made the playoffs three straight years; a fourth should be expected.
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.
Minnesota Vikings (home & away)
2019 record: 10-6
Notable: Much-maligned quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for under 4,000 yards for the first time since becoming a starter in 2015 yet he had one of his best seasons. Cousins set a career high in passer rating (107.4, fourth in the NFL) and a career low in interceptions percentage (1.4%). He also finally got a “big” win, helping the Vikings beat New Orleans in a wild-card playoff game with Cousins throwing the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Defensive end Danielle Hunter had 14.5 sacks and set the record for most sacks before turning 25.
Big question: Have we seen the peak for the Vikings? Minnesota made it to the divisional round after missing out last year following a run to the NFC championship. But to improve the team the Vikings are going to have to do some maneuvering. The team is currently slated to be over the cap at the start of the league year and will need to trim off some salary – that also doesn’t bode well for adding in free agency. The offensive line, despite constant building, remains shaky and the defense is starting to get old in parts. In addition, Cousins will be in the final year of his contract.
Expectations: As we’ve alluded to above, we’re not exactly bullish on the Bears or Lions, so the door is open for Minnesota to win the NFC North. At the very least, the Vikings will be expected to make their first back-to-back playoff appearances since 2008-09. If not, the seat under Zimmer will be getting quite hot.
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 dropoff like, say, Brady and Aaron 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.
San Francisco 49ers (away)
2019 record: 13-3
Notable: In their run to the Super Bowl, the 49ers lost their three games by a combined 13 points (all one-score games) while winning nine games (including both playoff victories) by 10+ points (also had a 9-0 win over Washington). As a result of being ahead often, San Francisco ran the ball a lot and finished with three backs having 500+ rushing yards. The 49ers had four players with at least 6 1/2 sacks and one of those, Dee Ford, only played 11 games.
Big question: Are they a one-year wonder? San Francisco seems built to last, especially with a strong, young defense, a good offensive line, one of the game’s best tight ends in George Kittle and an up-and-coming wide receiver in Deebo Samuel.
Expectations: Making a Super Bowl usually portends to success the following year but not always. Since the 2010 season, five teams missed out on the playoffs the following year after playing for the championship: 2011 Giants, 2012 Ravens, 2015 Broncos, 2015 Panthers and 2018 Rams (year listed is the season they made the Super Bowl). That being said, expectations will surely be high in 2020.