NFL

NFL 2020: Cowboys, Bucs & six teams who can make jump to the postseason

By Sports Desk September 12, 2020

NFL action is back after the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Houston Texans to kick off the defence of their Super Bowl title.

A further 15 games across Sunday and Monday will see the league's other 30 teams begin their 2020 slate, with some having greater prospects than others.

The Chiefs and Texans were two of the teams who made the postseason in 2019, but there were 20 that did not, including some historic franchises.

With an increased 14 spots up for grabs – up from 12 last season – many of those non-playoff teams will be eyeing a return to the big time and here we have reviewed six of the best candidates to make the jump.

AFC

Indianapolis Colts

Eight-time Pro Bowl selection Philip Rivers provides the Colts with an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett at quarterback and he will now play behind one of the league's best offensive lines, a situation he never had with the Chargers. 

A difficult offseason for the Texans, last year's AFC South winners, is another boost to the hopes of the Colts, who also made a splash on the defensive side of the ball by bringing in DeForest Buckner from the San Francisco 49ers after his appearance in the Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers went 8-8 last season even without two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger, who missed most of the campaign after shoulder surgery.

Despite a relatively quiet offseason, the Steelers can contend with Roethlisberger back and a defense that finished fifth in yards allowed (third against the pass) and sixth in points allowed, with T. J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick two of their star performers.

Against the odds…

Cleveland Browns

Yes, it's the Browns, and yes, last season they emphatically failed to deliver on preseason expectations and ended up changing their general manager and head coach having gone 6-10.

But despite those woes and an incredibly competitive division that contains the Baltimore Ravens and the Steelers, analysts may have gone too far the other way in dismissing the Browns as a 2020 threat. 

If Baker Mayfield can recover from a poor year and shine like he did as a rookie behind a revamped offensive line, an offense including Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Austin Hooper, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will thrive, while pass-rusher Myles Garrett -  who has 30.5 sacks in 37 career games - is back from suspension to lead a defense that was a top-10 unit against the pass last season.


NFC

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After winning six Super Bowls and nine AFC Championships in 20 seasons with the New England Patriots, Tom Brady has a new home at the age of 43, instantly making the Bucs a likely playoff team.

Brady has also brought tight end Rob Gronkowski along with him, those two adding to an already explosive Bruce Arians offense that includes pass-catchers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O. J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

With the offense set to shine and the Bucs looking to become the first team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl on home soil, the defense will need to play its part – but there is optimism there too with league sack leader Shaquil Barrett returning on the franchise tag and a promising young secondary in place.

Dallas Cowboys

Fresh from throwing just shy of 5,000 yards and adding 30 touchdowns last season, Dak Prescott would not have believed his luck when top wideout Amari Cooper signed a new long-term deal and Oklahoma prospect CeeDee Lamb dropped to the Cowboys in the draft.

Michael Gallup is also part of an impressive receiving corps being overseen by highly rated offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. A strong all-round roster and a weak NFC East should help new head coach Mike McCarthy as he looks to make the kind of postseason impact that eluded predecessor Jason Garrett.

Against the odds…

Arizona Cardinals

Adding DeAndre Hopkins, one of the NFL's best wide receivers, from the Texans in a one-sided trade was perhaps the deal of the offseason for an optimistic Cardinals team who should improve on their five wins in 2019 and could even be a surprise playoff team.

Hopkins joins franchise icon Larry Fitzgerald as a receiving option for QB Kyler Murray, of whom big things are expected after a largely positive rookie season from the former number one overall pick (3,722 passing yards and 544 rushing).

If they are to contend, big strides are also needed on the other side of the ball, but fans will be excited to see versatile top draft pick Isaiah Simmons paired with All-Pro pass-rusher Chandler Jones.

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    As they prepare for Sunday's home game against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Broncos will hold virtual meetings while operating under the league's coronavirus protocols amid the health pandemic.

    Denver also confirmed that the individual who tested positive is now in self-isolation, as are two other players deemed to have been close contacts.

    "We were informed early this morning that a Broncos player has tested positive for COVID-19," a statement from the team read.

    "The player is at home in self-isolation along with two other players who were determined to be close contacts. Our organisation, which has been operating under the league's intensive protocols, is in consultation with the NFL and taking guidance from medical experts.

    "As a precaution, we have made the decision to postpone today's practice and conduct virtual meetings in preparation for Sunday's game against the Chargers. The team is scheduled to return to UCHealth Training Center for practice tomorrow.

    "The health and safety of the players, coaches and staff will continue to be of the highest priority."

    According to an ESPN report citing an unnamed source, a player from the Minnesota Vikings roster has also returned a positive test result for the virus. 

    The Vikings travel to face divisional rivals Green Bay in Week 8 of the regular season.

  • Stats Perform's NFL Friday Facts: Franchise history awaits unbeaten Steelers Stats Perform's NFL Friday Facts: Franchise history awaits unbeaten Steelers

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are the last remaining unbeaten team in the NFL, but the Baltimore Ravens will hope to stop them earning a slice of history.

    For just the second time, the Steelers are 6-0 and victory at M&T Bank Stadium would see them match the franchise-best seven-game undefeated start set in 1978.

    Games between these NFC North rivals are typically tight affairs, though. Since 2008, 14 of their 24 regular-season meetings have been decided by three points or fewer – the most of any matchup in that time frame – and the Ravens have won eight of those 14 nail-biters.

    The Minnesota Vikings have the unenviable task of trying to stop an in-form Aaron Rodgers when they return from their bye week, while a significant milestone is in the offing for Travis Kelce.

    We use Stats Perform data to preview the standout matchups on the Week 8 slate.
     

    FEATURED GAME

    Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens – Sunday 1pm (all times Eastern)

    - Lamar Jackson has been held under 200 passing yards in four consecutive starts, though the Ravens won three of those games. Jackson has completed less than 60 per cent of his attempts in three of his last four contests, dropping his season completion percentage to 63 – 26th among 32 qualifiers.

    - Since 2000, the Steelers (226) and Ravens (210) rank second and fifth respectively in total victories (regular season and playoffs). The teams have combined to win 14 of 18 AFC North titles all-time, and, in 19 of the past 20 seasons, at least one of the two teams reached the postseason.

    - After throwing one interception in the first five games of 2020, Ben Roethlisberger was picked off three times in last Sunday's victory at the Tennessee Titans. Including the postseason, Roethlisberger is 15-10 in his career against the Ravens – but only 4-6 on the road. However, he was triumphant on his past two visits to Baltimore (2017, 2018).

    OTHER KEY GAMES

    Las Vegas Raiders at Cleveland Browns – Sunday, 1pm

    - The Browns' last-minute 37-34 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last week moved them to 5-2, giving them their best seven-game start to a season since re-joining the NFL in 1999. It is the fourth time since the merger that Cleveland has five or more wins through seven games (1977, 1993, 1994).

    Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers – Sunday, 1pm

    - Rodgers had four touchdown passes and no interceptions in a 35-20 win against the Houston Texans last time out. His 17 TD passes this year matches a career high through six games of a season, along with his 2011 MVP campaign

    New York Jets at Kansas City Chiefs – Sunday, 1pm

    - Kelce has 6,966 receiving yards in 103 career games. If he gets to 7,000 on Sunday, he would be the second-fastest tight end in NFL history to reach that mark, behind only Rob Gronkowski (100).

    New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears – Sunday, 4.25pm

    - The Saints beat the Carolina Panthers 27-24 at home last week. Each of their past three games has resulted in a win by six points or fewer, just the third time they have ever had such a streak (three games across the 1990 and 1991 seasons; four games in 1988).

    San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks – Sunday, 4.25pm

    - The Niners are averaging 7.0 yards per carry when rushing to the right (483 yards on 69 attempts), more than any team in any direction this season. They have a combined 479 yards on 122 carries to the left and up the middle

    ELSEWHERE…

    Los Angeles Rams at Miami Dolphins – Sunday, 1pm

    - Tua Tagovailoa will be making his first career start on Sunday. The fifth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, he is the second highest-picked Alabama quarterback of all time (Harry Gilmer went first overall in 1948), and the second-highest QB ever selected by the Dolphins (Bob Griese went fourth overall in 1967).

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New York Giants – Monday, 8.15pm

    - With a 45-20 win over the Raiders last week, Tampa Bay have now had back-to-back wins of at least 25 points for the first time in franchise history (defeated Green Bay by 28 in Week 6). The Bucs had just two such wins over the previous seven seasons combined.

  • Maradona at 60: The star of Mexico 1986 – and the World Cup handball king Maradona at 60: The star of Mexico 1986 – and the World Cup handball king

    Wherever you stand on football's GOAT debate, you can't deny the legacy of Diego Maradona.

    Some would place him behind Lionel Messi as Argentina's greatest ever footballer, and short of Pele in the sport's pantheon of the mighty; others would say Maradona eclipses them all. It's a debate that has raged for decades, and one that is not likely to be settled for some time.

    But nobody can argue that, in Mexico in 1986, Maradona produced a string of performances to rival anything the World Cup has ever witnessed.

    From the group stage to the final with West Germany, via the 'Goal of the Century' and a brazen moment of cheating, Maradona was so far above his contemporaries that the sheer idea of anyone else winning the Golden Ball was laughable.

    Argentina beat South Korea, drew with Italy and defeated Bulgaria in their group, then saw off Uruguay, England and Belgium in the knockouts before a 3-2 final defeat of West Germany. As Opta data shows, Maradona was the beating heart of the Albiceleste's second World Cup triumph.

     

    TAKE MY BREATH AWAY

    Gary Lineker was the only player to score more goals (six) at the 1986 World Cup than Maradona (five). That's about the only category where he did not come out on top.

    He added five assists to those five goals in his seven appearances, giving him the most goal involvements (10) of any player, ahead of the USSR's Igor Belanov (eight), and Lineker, Careca and Preben Elkjaer Larsen (six).

    It stands to reason that Maradona also created more goalscoring chances (27) than any other player. Next on the list was France's Alain Giresse (24), then Klaus Allofs (23), Michel Platini (19) and Careca (17).

    WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

    Everyone, most famously West Germany, tried to man-mark Maradona out of the equation. None succeeded.

    He completed 53 dribbles across the tournament, a tally that puts the rest of the competition to shame. The next highest number was recorded by USSR's Ivan Yaremchuk, who managed 16.

    Of course, that kind of dazzling play will always attract a more prosaic approach from the opposition. Maradona was fouled 53 times, more than double the number of anyone else (Enzo Francescoli was next on 27 fouls won).

    EDGE OF HEAVEN

    Maradona's all-round impact on proceedings could only come from a player given freedom to drop deeper and seize the ball from lesser men. It's incredible, then, that he managed 44 touches in the opposition box, eight more than the next-highest on the list, Brazil's Careca. Lineker, winner of the Golden Boot, had 31 such touches.

    Lineker and England have, of course, never forgotten Maradona's impact on their 2-1 quarter-final defeat in Mexico City. It was the scene of his greatest goal – a mazy, miraculous waltz through the heart of the opposition that ended with the bamboozling of goalkeeper Peter Shilton – and his crowning moment of infamy, when 'The Hand of God' punched Argentina into the lead.

    Perhaps that wasn't such a one-off, though. Since 1966, no player has committed as many handballs at the World Cup as Maradona (seven) – and they're just the ones the referees spotted.

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