It probably won’t surprise most people to know that the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens are expected to be the two-best teams in the NFL in 2020. They have the best odds of winning the Super Bowl (KC at +600 and BAL at +650), they share the highest over/under win total (11.5 wins), and they boast the last two league MVP winners (Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson). In others words: it’s hard to argue that they aren’t the two best teams in the league.
Now that Tom Brady and the Patriots are no longer a thing, the sport of football will be without literally one of the only constants it has ever known. That being New England, and the expectation that one way or another they are going to end up in the AFC Championship (but probably the Super Bowl). It leaves a vacuum of sorts for the next superpower. Right now everyone expects it to be Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Or maybe a hipster decides that it’s Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. Either way, those are the two smart bets.
I might be contrarian, but those two teams seem too obvious. Yes, Mahomes and the Chiefs figure to be at the top of the sport. They should have the most lethal offense in the NFL, and if the end of the 2019 season serves as any indication, their defense ought to be in the upper third of the league as well.
And the Ravens. What’s not to like? Lamar is the best running quarterback in the history of the NFL — even more dangerous than Michael Vick in his heyday — and he comes around at a time when the rules of punishing QBs (whether in the pocket or not) are as light as they have ever been. Add in the fact that Baltimore has beefed up their defensive front, and you are looking at a team that should be a shoe-in to win somewhere in the double-digits.
The problem is, the NFL doesn’t work out how we all expect it to. It’s easy for us to see Pat Mahomes win the Super Bowl and project more success as he gets older and more experienced. It’s also easy to see how talented Lamar Jackson is and say, shit, man, this guy is going to be in his prime for the next decade.
What’s lost is the idea that every team in the NFL is spending their entire offseason — or at least a decent chunk of it — thinking up ways to defend these star QBs and top-flight offenses. Teams are going to spend all year experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. And once they find a small opening, some scheme or some combination of defenders in the nickel and dime defensive sets, they are going to go with it over and over again until Kansas City and Baltimore prove they can counter it.
There’s a reason the Patriots have been at the top of the sport for the last twenty years. Why they have been able to make 9 Super Bowl appearances (and win 6 of them). Part of it has to do playing in the AFC East, with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills, giving them the cakewalk of all cakewalks into the playoffs every year. But another part has to do with the program they run. The program of not valuing any one player more than the team. The program that was willing to let the greatest quarterback of all-time, Tom Brady, walk away before his talent level fell off a cliff.
To this point neither the Chiefs or Ravens have proven they can sustain themselves. Having Pat Mahomes and Lamar Jackson is a helluva start, but again we are talking about the 2018 MVP (who has only been doing it for two years) and the 2019 MVP (who has only been doing it for 1.5 years). I love both these guys and I’m going to be rooting for them to continue their success, but this is a sport where you have to continue to prove it.
I can’t shake the idea that all it’s going to take is one team to figure it out, and the rest of the league will copy it. We saw in the Super Bowl how dangerously close the Chiefs came to getting shut down by the San Francisco 49ers, and they did it in the most old-school way imaginable: rush four down lineman, and play seven guys in coverage. Mahomes got hot at the end of the game and that was that, but 95% of the time the 49ers would have won that game.
The same can be said about the Ravens, when they played the Tennessee Titans, only in this case the opposition actually won the game. What the Titans did, they basically put eight defenders in the box and said, hey Lamar Jackson, you are really good, but if you want to win you are going to have to pass the football. In the end that game was no contest. Tennessee shut down Lamar and the Ravens seemingly unstoppable offense.
My gut tells me that’s how every other team is going to attack the Ravens in 2020. They are going to load up to stop the run and force Jackson to beat them with his arm. It’s obviously easier said than done, but it’s a blueprint nonetheless.
On the flip side of that, the Ravens are going to prepare this offseason to meet that attack. I’m just suspect that Lamar has the arm to do it. I’m also sensitive to the idea that Jackson runs the ball a lot, and it’s only going to take one big shot from a linebacker or safety to end his season, whether it’s a head injury or some sort of ACL tear. Running quarterbacks have come and running quarterbacks have gone, but very few have been able to negotiate through long careers being run-first. For the most part, the only QBs that have longevity — talking about the Tom Brady’s and Peyton Manning’s and Brett Favre’s of the world — have done it by being pocket passers.
Gun to my head, I would pass on the Chiefs over/under win total of 11.5, since I think they will either win 11 or 12. As for the Ravens, I would tend to lean heavy towards the under 11.5, for no other reason than their dependance of Lamar Jackson, and the idea that in any game, at any time, he is susceptible to getting knocked out.
None of this is to say that I don’t have my blind spots. I have a natural bias again running quarterbacks, for all the reasons I have mentioned, just as I have a bias against believing in success from my favorite team. At the end of the day the NFL is a grind. It’s so hard to win, and it’s even harder to sustain a winning franchise.
It might seem like an incredibly boring thought — particularly in an article about the sport’s two most interesting teams, highlighted by the sports two most interesting players — but the NFL almost always reverts back to grounding and pounding. Having a good running game on offense to control the clock, and having a solid defense to stop the opposing team from scoring. Fads come and go. But the constant in the NFL, from its inception, has been in the trenches.
For the Chiefs and Ravens to succeed, this year and beyond, will be to break that chain. It will take the finesse of relying on a dominant passing game, and the ignorance of ignoring something like 50 years of a proven model. I hope to be wrong — just as I was wrong about the Chiefs beating the 49ers in Super Bowl 54, and just as I was wrong about Patrick Mahomes being good in the first place — but my best guess is that history usually wins.