NFL Teams Set to Fall off in 2020
A falloff is coming for a handful of NFL teams.
The law of averages indicates that some of this year's unluckiest teams will inch back toward the mean next season, while some of the luckiest won't have the same fortune again. The proof is often in the playoff bracket, where each conference again sported at least two new arrivals that displaced past contenders.
Looking ahead to 2020, some teams will take a step back for a variety of reasons. Critical projection tools like one-score records and turnover differential tell an important story, as do simpler outlooks surrounding roster talent, the state of a team's division and salary-cap and draft scenarios.
The following five teams project to regress in 2020, barring a lucky bounce in the face of strong resistance.
The Houston Texans were a staple of regression lists a year ago for many reasons before Deshaun Watson worked like a magician to overcome his surroundings.
Same story going into 2020. Watson was incredibly special again in 2019, completing 67.3 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while taking 44 sacks, adding seven more scores as a rusher.
But even despite this, Watson's efforts were only good for a 10-6 record and a sneaky overtime playoff win over Buffalo before getting snuffed out by an actual contender, Kansas City. That wasn't hard to see coming after the Texans finished the year with a minus-seven point differential and were one of three teams with zero turnover differential.
Things are only going to get harder for the Texans in the AFC South with the Tennessee Titans one game away from the Super Bowl. The front office, which won't hire a general manager and will still employ Bill O'Brien, has some tough calls on free agents like cornerback Bradley Roby and still hasn't done enough to protect Watson, compounding matters. Laremy Tunsil arrived via trade at the end of the preseason to shore up the offensive line, but the cost was massive: The franchise now doesn't have a first-round pick in each of the next two drafts.
The Seattle Seahawks were one of the NFL's luckiest teams for most of the 2019 season thanks to another MVP-esque effort from Russell Wilson under center.
Seattle surged to an 11-5 mark behind a 66.1 completion percentage with 4,110 yards and 31 touchdowns against five picks from Wilson, who took an NFL-high 48 sacks in the process.
As Ty Schalter of Five Thirty Eight pointed out, the Seahawks enjoyed great luck in "coin flip" games, going 5-1. Had those gone the other direction, Seattle would've finished 6-10. Keep in mind some of these closer games were struggles to beat bad teams like Cincinnati and Cleveland, while other weeks saw the Seahawks get waxed by contenders like Baltimore.
Pair this with a point differential of just plus-seven while feasting on a plus-12 turnover differential, and it wasn't a shock to see the Seahawks bow out in Green Bay after besting a 9-7 Eagles club.
With a possible regression from Wilson and less fortunate circumstances looming, the Seahawks have to make tough calls on players like Jadeveon Clowney while sparring in an NFC West with contending San Francisco, as well as possible rebounders in Arizona and the Los Angeles Rams.
The Indianapolis Colts understandably regressed from 10-6 to 7-9 after the retirement of Andrew Luck.
But things might not stop there. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the team might seek out a replacement for Jacoby Brissett, who hardly completed 60 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and six picks despite playing behind one of the better lines in football.
The Colts regressed dramatically over the second half of the season as teams adjusted and contenders emerged. They lost seven of nine once the calendar turned to November, finishing with a minus-12 point differential despite a near-.500 finish (compare this to the staggering plus-71 differential for the 9-7 Titans in the same division).
While the Colts have plenty of cap space to work with (about $96 million, per Spotrac), they're looking at a potential big quarterback change and could be losing a piece of the offensive line in headline free agent Anthony Castonzo.
All this while partaking in the crowded AFC South, where the division seems to beat the tar out of itself year in and year out, not to mention a top-heavy AFC with Baltimore, Kansas City and Tennessee, for starters. The Colts have to deal with the tough NFC North in addition to matchups with Baltimore and Pittsburgh next year, never mind the division itself.
The Atlanta Falcons could slide even further in 2020.
The Falcons are content to work with head coach Dan Quinn again even after a down year an offseason removed from firing all his coordinators. The 2019 season featured a 7-9 mark and ho-hum effort from Matt Ryan, owner of 26 touchdowns and 14 picks while suffering 48 sacks despite surrounding talent like Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
Quinn's offense averaged 3.8 yards per carry and didn't do well outright, either, settling on a minus-18 point differential and minus-five turnover differential. Even so, three "coin flip" games went their way; otherwise, their record would've been 4-12.
The strong finish to erase the 1-7 start featured some interesting, sporadic wins over New Orleans and San Francisco but also featured two wins over a Cam Newton-less Carolina team and a split with bumbling Tampa Bay, evoking a "shrug" from most while the Falcons saw it as a reason to run it back next year.
It's a tough sell, especially with so much money wrapped up in stars to the point of having only about $11 million in cap space. The late surge—assisted by strength of schedule or not—means a middling No. 16 pick in the draft, and next year's slate, besides the division, boasts Seattle, Kansas City, Green Bay and Dallas, to name a few notables. The Falcons look poised to lose any momentum from the strong late-season surge.
New England Patriots
The specter of change looms large over the New England Patriots.
Maybe Tom Brady won't end up leaving. Even working under the assumption he's sticking around for another season doesn't change the fact that Bill Belichick and Co. just made an early exit from the playoffs after a 12-4 season in which Brady himself regressed, completing just 60.8 percent of his passes (lowest since 2013) and throwing five fewer touchdowns (24) than the season prior despite the backing of an elite defense.
And that defense doesn't seem sustainable, not after finishing the season with gaudy regression-to-mean numbers like a plus-195 point differential and a league-leading plus-21 turnover differential. And even those didn't mean much in a wild-card loss to Tennessee during which Brady couldn't throw a touchdown.
The Patriots hit the offseason early with about $42 million in cap space, but a Brady deal could eat into that while key free agents like safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Kyle Van Noy have unknown fates.
It's a bad time for these details to converge, too. In 2019, New England benefited from beating up on bad teams from New York three times, as well as Miami, Washington, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Encounters with Baltimore, Houston and Kansas City were all losses.
In 2020, 10-win Buffalo figures to keep surging in the division, and so could an encouraging Miami team under Brian Flores, not to mention the top teams in the AFC as a whole—some of which appear to have already surpassed New England in the conference hierarchy. On top of all the evidence, it's hard to shake the feeling that Belichick's magic has started to fade.