Arizona Cardinals (5-10-1, missed playoffs)
What happened last year
With a brand-new coaching staff, a rookie QB the team selected first overall, and intriguing pieces on both sides of the ball, the Cardinals started off the 2019 season with some fireworks. Down by as many as 18 points in the fourth quarter of their Week 1 match-up against the Lions, first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s squad stormed back to force overtime. The contest ultimately ended in a 27-27 tie but it served as a prime example of how fun the Cardinals could be.
Arizona entered Week 8 with a respectable 3-3-1 record but proceeded to lose six straight games, essentially extinguishing any potential playoff hopes the organization had. The Cardinals would bounce back and win two of their final three games including a surprising 27-13 dismantling of the Seahawks in Seattle. Kyler Murray still has room to improve but the Oklahoma product put together a respectable rookie campaign en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, putting up a -1.5 CPOE (24th) and a 55.7 QBR (15th) while compiling 3,722 passing yards, 20 TDs and 12 interceptions through the air along with 544 yards and 4 TDs on the ground.
WR DeAndre Hopkins, DT Jordan Phillips, LB Isaiah Simmons, LB De’Vondre Campbell, LB Devon Kennard, DT Leki Fotu
RB David Johnson, DE Cassius Marsh, C A.Q. Shipley, LB Joe Walker, WR Damiere Byrd, DT Zach Kerr
Week 1: Cardinals at 49ers
Arizona will get a tough test to start off their 2020 season as they travel to face the defending NFC champions. This is a true prove-it game for both sides—the Niners are looking to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke while the Cardinals are looking to prove that they can join the list of teams to go from worst to first in their division. The Cardinals defense will be the unit to watch here; they struggled in almost every aspect in 2019 but stopping tight ends was a major issue and they’ll go up against one of the best in the league in Week 1.
Week 6: Cardinals at Cowboys
If the Cardinals do pick up a win against the 49ers, they could conceivably enter this Monday night battle with Dallas at 5-0. Putting up a strong performance on the road in front of a national audience against a Super Bowl contender would further strengthen Arizona’s credibility.
Week 11: Cardinals at Seahawks
Even if the stadium won’t be filled with fans, having to play at CenturyLink Field on a Thursday night won’t be an easy task. In the Pete Carroll era, the Seahawks have an 8-1 record in Thursday Night games including a perfect 4-0 mark at home. This is the second of two meetings between the two bird teams and if Arizona wants to make a run at the playoffs, they’ll likely need at least a split against their divisional rival.
X Factor: Isaiah Simmons
In a year where a global pandemic wiped out a traditional offseason and an entire preseason, every rookie entering the league is at a disadvantage. It might be unfair to attach high expectations to first-year players in a season like this one, but the emergence of Simmons as a versatile defensive weapon will be a big factor in whether or not Arizona’s defense takes as big of a step forward as some are expecting.
Since 2002, there have only been two seasons where at least one team didn’t improve from worst to first in their division. Even in a competitive NFC West with two Super Bowl hopefuls in Seattle and San Francisco, the Cardinals might be in the best position to be one of those worst to first teams. Ultimately there is a lot of projection involved with this prediction—Murray taking a leap in year two due to an innovative coaching staff and solid offensive weapons, the defense becoming average instead of well-below average, improving on a 3-5 record in one-possession games—but the future is looking bright in Arizona and the fanbase definitely has a lot to be excited about.
San Francisco 49ers (13-3, lost to Kansas City in Super Bowl)
What happened last year
With a pretty talented roster and the intriguing return of Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers entered 2019 with some modest expectations—eight wins or so, maybe a playoff appearance, continue building towards becoming a contender for the first time since the early part of the decade. Led by third-year head coach Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco not only met those expectations, they shattered them. The Niners reeled off eight straight wins to begin the season and ended up clinching the top seed in the NFC. With two convincing performances in the Divisional round and Conference Championship—a 27-10 win over the Vikings and a 37-20 victory over the Packers—the 49ers were headed to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
They even had a 20-10 lead entering the 4th quarter and it seemed like the Lombardi trophy was finally heading back to San Francisco. Alas, the Chiefs rattled off 21 unanswered points and while the 49ers looked strong for the first 45 minutes of the game, they couldn’t quite keep it together for the final 15. Still, it was clearly a successful season for the 49ers and much of their young roster as they cemented themselves as a team that should consistently contend for the titles over the next several years.
LT Trent Williams, DT Javon Kinlaw, WR Brandon Aiyuk, OG Tom Compton
LT Joe Staley, DT DeForest Buckner, WR Emmanuel Sanders, RB Matt Brieda
Week 10: 49ers at Saints
On paper the Saints have the most talented roster in the NFC so this will likely be the toughest test San Francisco faces in the regular season. These two teams had an extremely entertaining shootout in 2019 with the 49ers pulling out a 48-46 win in the Superdome. While the Niners have tough games before Week 10—Philadelphia, New England, Seattle, and Green Bay are among the teams they’ll play—a win here would likely cement San Francisco as the team to beat in the NFC.
Week 15: 49ers at Cowboys
A fun late-season match-up in front of a national audience on Sunday night, this could be a crucial game for seeding purposes within the NFC. It would be surprising if both of these teams weren’t in the playoff picture in late-December and a win for either team could be the deciding factor between a home playoff game and having to go on the road (or perhaps missing the postseason altogether if things don’t go according to plan over the first 14 weeks).
Week 17: Seahawks at 49ers
As stated in the Seahawks capsule above, this could end up being a repeat of the Week 17 match-up between these two teams in 2019. That game was in Seattle so the Niners will have the home-field advantage this time around (not that it mattered last year). Depending on what happens around the rest of the NFC in 2020, this game could theoretically also determine who makes the playoffs and who has to watch at home.
X Factor: Jimmy Garoppolo
Ultimately, any major success the 49ers have in 2020 will hinge on Jimmy G’s ability to command the offense and avoid crucial mistakes. Shanahan’s offensive schemes will obviously play a factor in Garoppolo’s overall performance, but the QB put up a 67.5 percent expected completion percentage and a 1.7 CPOE which was 9th in the league albeit with the 2nd-lowest aDOT (6.5) among qualified passers. He might not ever be a top-tier (or even second-tier) quarterback who can put the team on his back like Mahomes or Wilson, but he can certainly be a dependable signal-caller who can guide a team to success.
The 49ers won’t go 13-3 again and that’s okay. They enter 2020 as one of the most talented teams in the league and are certainly capable of making the playoffs and getting back to the Super Bowl. They’ll once again be challenged with a relatively tough schedule just as they were in 2019. Still, it shouldn’t be overstated that the Niners bring back 21 starters and 82.6% of their 2019 snaps which is good for 4th in the league per ESPN. Continuity will be a bigger advantage this year than it normally is which will play in San Francisco’s favor. They start off with a relatively easy schedule and while 8-0 might not happen again, a 6-2 start seems entirely possible and would put the team in a good position to make another run at a division title.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5, lost to Green Bay in Divisional round)
What happened last year
Stop me at any point if you’ve heard the following story before: the Seahawks finished with double-digit wins in the regular season and clinched a spot in the postseason (they’ve done this seven out of the last eight seasons). They won exactly one playoff game before bowing out in the Divisional round (this has happened four out of the last eight seasons). Despite having an elite quarterback who is on a Hall of Fame path, the offensive coaching staff was hesitant to #LetRussCook (per Warren Sharp, “Seattle still passed 3% below average and ranked as the 10th-most run-heavy offense” in the entire league). Spoiler alert: you have heard this story before. Too many times, in fact.
S Jamal Adams, OT Cedric Ogbuehi, OT Brandon Shell, C B.J. Finney, G Damien Lewis, OLB Bruce Irvin, TE Greg Olsen, CB Quinton Dunbar, RB Carlos Hyde, LB Jordyn Brooks
EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, RB Marshawn Lynch, DT Al Woods, G D.J. Fluker, OT George Fant, DE Quinton Jefferson, OT Germain Ifedi
Week 3: Cowboys at Seahawks
This will not only be a fun early-season game for NFL fans, it’ll also serve as a measuring stick for each of these two teams. The incredibly enticing Dak-Russ match-up notwithstanding, both Dallas and Seattle will aim to put a quality win on their 2020 resumé. A 3-0 start for the winner of this game could be in the cards as well which would obviously be ideal—since the NFL expanded to 32 teams, 69.5 percent of teams that start 3-0 have qualified for the playoffs.
Week 16: Rams at Seahawks
While the teams seem to be on relatively different trajectories at the moment, the Seahawks have struggled against the Rams recently; over their last five meetings, Seattle is a meager 1-4. This game comes after a seemingly easy stretch for the Seahawks as they play the Giants, Jets, and Washington during Weeks 13-15. Seattle faded down the stretch a season ago so it’ll be important to come out of this game with a convincing victory considering what lies ahead.
Week 17: Seahawks at 49ers
Despite the Cardinals prediction above, this Week 17 game between the Seahawks and Niners may determine who wins the NFC West and who has to go on the road for the first round of the playoffs, a scenario that would be an exact repeat of their Week 17 match-up a season ago. Of course, Seattle lost that game 26-21 and saw the three seed fall right out of their grasp. While they did end up winning in Philadelphia on Wild Card weekend, perhaps their season would have ended differently had they clinched that third seed.
X Factor: Brian Schottenheimer
This one is simple. While it’s admirable that the Seahawks are committed to pounding the rock and staying on the ground, that’s not how this team will make it back to the Super Bowl. As stated previously, Schottenheimer and the rest of the offensive coaching staff need to #LetRussCook if they don’t want a repeat of 2019 (and 2018, and 2016, and…you get the point). It’s not easy to be blessed with a future Hall of Fame quarterback, so if you have one, use him!
The Seahawks are a good football team. They have talent on both sides of the ball. They bolstered their defense in a big way with the acquisition of Jamal Adams in late July and they at least attempted to revamp their offensive line. Still, until they prove otherwise, this is how the season is likely to go: they’ll win double-digit games in the regular season and make the postseason (for the eighth time in nine years). They’ll win a playoff game in the first round before getting eliminated in the Divisional round (for the fifth time in nine seasons). They’ll once again be one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL. Rinse and repeat.
If they actually do what they should’ve done a long time ago and #LetRussCook though, it could be a special season in Seattle.
Los Angeles Rams (9-7, missed playoffs)
What happened last year
A year after going 13-3 and appearing in quite possibly one of the worst Super Bowls of all-time, the Rams looked set to continue their recent run of success. They started 2019 with three straight wins including a 27-9 triumph over the Saints in a rematch of their NFC Championship game eight months prior. The offense was averaging about 26 points per game while the defense was allowing only 16. Do you remember the stat from earlier, that 69.5 percent of teams that start 3-0 have qualified for the playoffs? The Rams found themselves in the 30.5 percent; they went 6-9 down the stretch and missed the postseason for the first time in Sean McVay’s tenure. There were some highlights—the 37-10 win over Atlanta and 28-12 win over Seattle made it seem as though the Rams were who we though they were. Still, the lowlights—a 45-6 drubbing at the hands of the Ravens and a late-season 44-21 loss to the Cowboys, for example—showed what the Rams truly were: an incredibly inconsistent team in almost every aspect.
OC Kevin O’Connell, DC Brandon Staley, ST John Bonamego, OLB Leonard Floyd, RB Cam Akers, K Sam Sloman, DT A’Shawn Robinson
Co-OC Aaron Kromer, Co-OC Shane Waldron, DC Wade Phillips, ST John Fassel, WR Brandin Cooks, RB Todd Gurley, OLB Dante Fowler Jr., CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, S Eric Weddle, K Greg Zuerlein, LB Cory Littleton, LB Clay Matthews
Week 1: Cowboys at Rams
The Rams get a tough draw right off the bat as Super Bowl hopeful Dallas will travel to the brand-new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood for the first Sunday Night game of the 2020 season. This will be a good way for Los Angeles to see what exactly they have on the roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Week 2: Rams at Eagles
Another tough draw as the Rams have to travel to the East Coast for a 1 PM kickoff for the Eagles home opener. Philadelphia has their own set of question marks entering the season but a loss here may drop Los Angeles to 0-2; in the ultra-competitive NFC West and the strong NFC in general, an 0-2 start might be hard to overcome.
Week 12: 49ers at Rams
Based on how the Rams schedule is constructed, this game could end up being huge for their playoff hopes. With meetings against Dallas, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Seattle, and Tampa Bay before this Week 12 match-up, Los Angeles could find themselves with only four wins heading into their second game against the Niners. Especially with games against Arizona (twice), New England, and Seattle still ahead of them, losing this one could prove costly depending on how they start the season.
X Factor: Jared Goff
After a tough rookie campaign with Jeff Fisher as his head coach, Jared Goff started to turn things around in 2017 and 2018 under McVay. He unfortunately regressed in 2019 and, for about 134 million different reasons, the Rams will need him to bounce back in a big way if they want to get back to the playoffs. The 4th-year signal-caller was 34th in CPOE (62.9% completion percentage compared to a 66.5% expected completion percentage), 25th in QBR (48.5), and 22nd in aDOT (7.7). Similar to Garoppolo, Goff will never be a top-tier he definitely has the ability to be much better than he was in 2019.
Just a couple years ago the Rams were the most talented team in the NFC West. Of course, NFL stands for “Not For Long” so the Rams now find themselves on the other end of the talent spectrum due to improvements the other three teams have made. They still have stars like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey but they’re capped out and they only have four draft picks (2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th round) for the 2021 draft. The short-term outlook for the franchise doesn’t look super promising; mediocre is probably a good way to describe it. The team will return 87.4% of their offensive snaps (5th in the league) but only 53.8% of their defensive snaps (31st). Taking into account the player continuity issue, the coaching staff turnover, and the tough schedule, any notable success seems like it’ll be pretty hard to come by for the Rams in 2020. They’re stuck in the middle at this point—they have enough talent to hover around .500 if not a little above or below but that’s about it.
(Cover Photo: design by Ryan Waldis, photos via Associated Press, USA Today, David Solano)