NEW TGS COVER STORY..."SUPER" LV & MORE SEASON REVIEWS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
That we have arrived at Super Bowl LV having completed a full NFL season ranks as perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the 2020 campaign. Most amazing was that this mostly resembled a normal NFL year on the field, even considering the various hurdles and mostly fan-free venues during the pandemic. In a year in which some sort of normalcy was most welcomed, the NFL delivered. In retrospect, the handful of postponements only provided a minor nuisance to the schedule, which compared to other sports was able to proceed without comparable interruptions.
All that’s left is the “Supe” which is something special for those of us in the TGS generation because we have witnessed the Super Bowl from its birth. In fact, TGS had already been publishing for a full decade when the first installment was conducted back on January 15, 1967. We know; we were there at the L.A. Coliseum to watch the Packers and Chiefs do battle in what was the most-anticipated sporting event, perhaps matched only by the Ali-Frazier I fight at Madison Square Garden four years later, spanning our publishing history, which concludes its 65th football season this week. Check the TGS website for our recollections of Super Bowl I (which, yes, was already referred to as the “Super Bowl” by all of the media despite it taking Pete Rozelle until two years later to officially call the game “Super Bowl”). Our forecast for Bucs-Chiefs can be found in this week’s NFL Analysis.
As we conclude another football publishing season, thanks as always to our readers, who we welcome to join along for the rest of the basketball season with our unique TGS Hoops publication in its new, well-received format. We’ll be checking back with more football on these pages when we present out annual NFL Draft preview in April.
In the meantime we will wrap up our annual season-end reviews for NFL teams, this time including all of the teams that have exited the playoffs leading up to LV next Sunday in Tampa, followed by a brief recap on past Super Bowls. Final straight-up records (including playoff games) are included for each team.
Baltimore (12-6)... In the end the Ravens probably did well to just qualify for the playoffs, given that they were hit with a slew of injuries and harder than most teams with Covid issues that even took QB Lamar Jackson out for a couple of games around Thanksgiving. But no camouflaging the fact that Baltimore did slip a bit from last year’s 14-2 mark and continues to find the postseason a frustrating experience, even though Jackson did win his first bowl/playoff game in his career (at Tennessee) after four earlier setbacks. The 17-3 loss at Buffalo in the Division Round suggested that unless some alterations are made, that might be the Ravens’ ceiling; in particular, Jackson could use a bonafide downfield target that should be an offseason priority for GM Eric DeCosta, who can look to see how the likes of Buffalo (with Stefon Diggs) and Arizona (with DeAndre Hopkins) upgraded their receiving corps to make life a bit easier for younger QBs Josh Allen & Kyler Murray, respectively. The Bills, like the Titans and Chargers in the playoffs the past two years, succeeded when daring Jackson to throw downfield, and John Harbaugh needs an answer to that dilemma if he wants to compete with the Chiefs and others in a crowded AFC upper tier. DeCosta also has contract decisions to make on edge rushers Matt Judon & Yannick Ngakuoue, who both played on franchise tags in 2020, as their presence might be important for the D to keep upholding its end of the bargain in Baltimore.
Buffalo (15-4)... The blueprint for how to effectively build a contender has been authored in Buffalo, mostly by GM Brandon Beane, who has organically constructed a roster and augmented it with shrewd additions via trades and free agency to arrive as a serious force in the AFC. For the first time in a quarter-century, the Bills won the AFC East and a playoff game. (New England’s era of dominance seems to have ended post-Tom Brady.) Built for the long run, it seems, Beane has his HC (Sean McDermott) and QB (Josh Allen) in place to remain a factor in the AFC for the foreseeable future, though overtaking the Chiefs was a bridge too far this season, as a pair of losses to KC confirmed. On the field, there might be a possible concern with the stop unit that didn’t have quite the same bite as a year ago, though perhaps that had to do with the offense scoring more points and forcing opponents to play with urgency in catch-up mode. After smartly adding WR Stefon Diggs from the Vikings in trade for 2020, Beane might want to upgrade the RB position this offseason, perhaps in the draft. (The FA market for top-flight runners is not overwhelming unless the Packers opt to let Aaron Jones walk.) With Buffalo bumping its head against the salary cap, Beane is also going to have to make some difficult personnel decisions in the offseason on some key components like LB Matt Milano, CB Taron Johnson, and on the OL. More than anything, the bar has been raised in Orchard Park, and making the playoffs is not going to be enough to satisfy the fan base. The Super Bowl window should be open for the next couple of years, and falling short will rate a disappointment.
Cleveland (12-6)... It looks like owner Jimmy Haslam finally spun the roulette wheel and won with his head coach, as Kevin Stefanski delivered just what the doctor ordered after coming over from Mike Zimmer’s Viking staff. Along the way Baker Mayfield finally emerged into a leader at QB and should make management’s decision to extend his soon-expiring rookie contract an easy one. Mostly, however, a clubhouse that had too many big personalities for Freddie Kitchens to deal with last season seemed to collectively mature, and overseeing the process might be Stefanski’s greatest achievement. Along the way Cleveland would win its first playoff games since the “old” Browns of 1994, and having the Chiefs on the ropes in the Division Round suggests Cleveland needs to be taken seriously, especially as the title window looks like it ought to be open for the next several years. Beyond Mayfield, RB Nick Chubb and DE Myles Garrett have developed into featured performers at their positions, though young GM Andrew Berry is probably going to look at defensive upgrades in the draft and free agency, especially in the secondary and linebacking corps. The offense looks set; a few tweaks on defense might be all it takes for the Brownies to become a more-serious threat in 2021.
Indianapolis (11-6)... The Colts partially achieved what they were looking to do when adding Philip Rivers on a one-year deal at QB. In the end, however, a back-door into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season and an exasperating Wild Card Round exit at Buffalo suggested the franchise is still not beyond Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement on the eve of the 2019 season. Consensus opinion seems to be that HC Frank Reich is simply a QB away; GM Chris Ballard will probably ask Luck if he might have any interest in a return, but short of an unlikely development in that scenario, Indy looms as one of the most-intriguing QB storylines of the offseason. The Matthew Stafford possibilities were snuffed out last weekend when the Lions traded him to the Rams instead; another possibility could still be Carson Wentz, who may or may not be moved by the Eagles, but whose past work with Reich when the latter was Philly’s o.c. in the Super Bowl year has kept that rumor mill whirring; Ballard will at least make that call to the Birds. Sources also suggest the Falcons might be listening to offers for Matt Ryan, in which case Ballard will likely be in contact with Atlanta, too. As for Rivers, he’s already decided to retire for good, and Jacoby Brissett is due to hit free agency, where he likely finds a better deal as one of the top backups on the market. Otherwise the roster looks well set, with re-signing LB Darius Leonard another offseason priority for Ballard. If WR T.Y. Hilton is allowed to walk, Ballard also likely prioritizes a wideout in free agency (where there could be several intriguing options, including Kenny Golladay, Allen Robinson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Godwin, and others) or the draft.
Pittsburgh (12-5)... Going out with a whimper in Wild Card Weekend didn’t seem to be a consideration into December when the Steelers were unbeaten and starting to generate comparisons to the 2007 Patriots. In the end, however, it was a mirage, as the offense would stall down the stretch, blowing the top seed and first-round bye in the AFC in the process, and not recover until the Browns started to sit on an early 28-0 lead in the first round of the playoffs and Big Ben was able to accumulate some hollow stats in an eventual 48-37 loss. It was a crushing collapse, and where the Steelers go with Roethlisberger remains to be seen. Signed thru 2021, Big Ben’s $41.2 mil cap hit next season is untenable, and he’s indicated he’ll work with the team on a restructure. At least Roethlisberger has indicated he would like to play another year, but the Steelers have come to the point where they can wait no longer to identify a successor at QB; are GM Kevin Colbert and HC Mike Tomlin really convinced that Mason Rudolph is the heir apparent? And is Colbert assured of being around into next season? With close to 20 potential free agents to worry about on the roster, Colbert or whomever might replace him will have to do some salary cap gymnastics even beyond Roethlisberger’s contract. There is thought that the Steelers’ best chance to get back to the Supe in the near future just passed them by, and it is time to start planning for life post-Big Ben. The adjustment phase might already have begun with the hire of new o.c. Matt Canada.
Tennessee (11-6)... There’s a different feeling than the buzz of a year ago in Music City when the Titans pulled playoff upsets at New England and Baltimore to get to the doorstep of the Super Bowl before the Chiefs slammed the gate shut. No longer sneaking up on anybody in 2020, Tennessee made hard work to get back to the playoffs though did so as AFC South champ, finally securing a home game in the first round of the playoffs on the final play of the regular season at Houston before falling flat in the Wild Card Round. Moving forward, a prolific offense that was shut down by the Ravens in the playoffs is not a main concern; Derrick Henry led the league in rushing once again and crashed over the 2000-yard mark in the process, while QB Ryan Tannehill further confirmed his reincarnation that began midway in the previous season. The issues for HC Mike Vrable are on defense, where Tennessee couldn’t generate a consistent push even after adding noted edge rushers such as Jadeveon Clowney (unlikely to be brought back) and Vic Beasley (released in November). The stop unit was a problem all season after the retirement of vet d.c. Dean Pees; Vrabel has doubled-down on OLB coach Shane Bowen, who was the defacto coordinator without the title this past fall and recently named the full-time replacement for Pees. Meanwhile, with clever o.c. Arthur Smith having moved to Atlanta to become the new Falcons HC, TE Coach Todd Downing has been promoted as Smith’s successor. He will benefit if underrated TE Jonnu Smith, due to hit free agency, is retained, and top WR Corey Davis could also walk. But if Tennessee wants to be serious about making a Super Bowl run while the offense is humming, GM Jon Robinson had better fix the defense ASAP.
Chicago (8-9)... The Bears were the direct beneficiary of the league’s decision to expand the playoff field by one team per conference, which meant even a modest 8-8 mark was good enough for the seventh and last seed in the NFC. But that does not constitute much progress in the eyes of Chicago fans, with GM Ryan Pace and HC Matt Nagy looking squarely on the hot seat and into must-win seasons for both in the fall after a meek exit in the Wild Card Round vs. the Saints. More was expected in 2020, especially after a fast 5-1 start, but backing into the playoffs and losing 8 of their last 11 qualifies as a vast disappointment. Like last year, solving the QB riddle is problem number one; Mitch Trubisky revived slightly this season but does not appear a long-term answer after the team passed on a contract extension before the season, and Nick Foles is unlikely to return. Expect Pace, in the last year of his contract, to look aggressively for an upgrade in the trade market (Carson Wentz, and, if Deshaun Watson is really going to be on the move from Houston, to at least explore that possibility as well), and perhaps high in the draft, though it’s possible Trubisky might still be the best option for 2021 and could be brought back on a one-year deal. As that remains a possibility, it seems as if the Bears might be stuck exactly where they were a year ago, the offense flailing, with QB questions and still unable to figure out how to best utilize RB David Montgomery. Chuck Pagano has also retired as the d.c. after the stop unit slightly regressed, with the once-feared Khalil Mack disappearing for long stretches. What Pace does at the QB spot, however, will command most of the offseason attention in the Windy City.
Green Bay (14-4)... This looked a bit different than a year ago when the Pack careened into the Final Four on the heels of several narrow escapes before getting dismantled by the 49ers for a spot in the Super Bowl. Green Bay was more dominant this season with QB Aaron Rodgers producing MVP-like numbers (try 48 TDP and a mere 5 picks!), suggesting he maybe should have dumped Danica Patrick much sooner. But the way the campaign concluded against the visiting Bucs in the NFC title game has left such a bad taste it suggests Rodgers might have just missed his last, best chance to get back to the Supe with the Pack. That 2nd-year HC Matt LaFleur could be guilty of such egregious strategic errors late in the Tampa Bay game might erode the bond between coach and QB, as Rodgers was obviously biting his tongue in post-game comments and reluctant to commit to his future at Lambeau Field. We’re not to the point (at least yet) where he is demanding a trade, but after watching Tom Brady get back to another Supe in a new, tailor-made situation has to get Rodgers at least thinking a bit, especially if his confidence in LaFleur has eroded, and added displeasure at QB Jordan Love being the first-round pick last April. Could Rodgers have an eye on San Francisco, nearby his old stomping grounds, and the 49ers perhaps exploring non-Jimmy G options? Stay tuned. There’s something else for GM Brian Gutekunst and salary-cap guru Russ Ball to consider...plenty of FAs-to-be (including RB Aaron Jones) and not a lot of salary cap room. Jones looks a candidate to be franchise-tagged, but Gutekunst doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room. The whole ship in Green Bay gets upended, however, if Rodgers tries to force his way out of town.
Los Angeles Rams (11-7)...That proved no false alarm when the Rams were reportedly snooping around the QB market as HC Sean McVay’s discomfort with Jared Goff was becoming harder and harder to camouflage after the playoff exit in Green Bay. Jumping in with both feet, GM Les Snead, who has reminded of a modern-day George Allen with his penchant for dealing away draft picks, swung a massive deal last weekend with the Lions for Matthew Stafford, shipping Goff and a slew of prime draft picks (LA’s first-round picks in 2022 & ‘23, and a third-round pick this year) to Detroit. On the surface it reminds a bit of the Rams trading for vet QB John Hadl from the Chargers at the outset of the Chuck Knox era in ‘73, though the haul of draft picks involved almost makes it more analogous to when the Rams subsequently shipped out Hadl to Green Bay midway in 1974 and received five prime draft slots across the next two years. The Bert Jones trade with the Colts in '82 also comes to mind. Whatever, this was a heavy price to pay for Stafford, and unless the Rams win a Super Bowl with the former Georgia Bulldog at the controls, the Lions are probably the winners in this deal. The desire to move on from Goff was understandable; it’s a fact that the offense has not moved with the same consistency since Bill Belichick shut down Goff and outfoxed McVay back in Super Bowl LIII. The defense recovered and was dominant at times in 2020 as it ranked among the league’s best with DT Aaron Donald and CB Jalen Ramsey the featured performers, though bright, young d.c. Brandon Staley has moved to the other half of SoFi Stadium as the new HC of the Chargers. But as Snead and McVay have already chosen not to run it back in 2021 with only minor tweaks, choosing a more radical approach instead, it’s obviously Super Bowl or bust with Stafford, as the Rams have already become one of the top storylines entering next season.
New Orleans (13-5)... The expected retirement of Drew Brees will dominate the talking points of the offseason in the Big Easy, as Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis gauge the market. Will they really give the keys for the offense to Taysom Hill, as some insiders have suggested the past couple of years? Or is Jameis Winston a possibility to be kept as a short-term alternative? The departure of Brees need not sink the Saints, who have in fact flourished without him in the lineup (with Teddy Bridgewater and Hill losing just 1 of 9 starts between them the past two seasons), and the strong roster is hardly about to be disassembled. But Loomis has another problem, with as many as ten vets with cap hits of $10 million or more for next season, and several free agents he probably can’t re-sign. Looking ahead, they’ll want to make sure to keep the likes of CB Marshon Lattimore, OL studs Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, and perhaps Hill in the fold when they are up for renewals the following year. Projected at almost $100 mill over the cap, Loomis can probably work around that number this offseason by pushing some of the cap costs into the future, but this is not an easy assignment. Consensus opinion is that the title window should probably be open for another year at the Superdome, but it will require deft maneuvering by Loomis, who has a major financial re-set to worry about on top of deciding, along with Payton, if there is need to look outside of the organization for the immediate successor to Brees.
Seattle (12-5)... In the end it was a bitter way to exit the playoffs, as the Seahawks, apt to getting bullied by the Rams the past couple of seasons, could not deal with L.A. in the Wild Card Round and ended with a wholly unsatisfactory climax to a season that for a time promised so much in the Northwest. Never one to stand still, HC Pete Carroll immediately sought staff changes; the meltdown in the playoffs cost o.c. Brian Schottenheimer his job, with Rams assistant Shane Waldron expected to be his successor. There are also some significant contract issues to address in the offseason, including a re-sign of S Jamal Adams, who mostly delivered as anticipated after costing the Seahawks a pair of first-round picks to the Jets. Assuming the deal for Adams gets done, LB Shaquill Griffin looms as the second priority and also due to hit the market unless the Hawks pay up, and then there is underrated RB Chris Carson, who makes the infantry go. Re-signing all three of those key cogs might be tricky, and it’s possible one of them (likely Griffin or Carson) could walk. The offense, always apt to be over-reliant upon Russell Wilson, didn’t operate with the same panache in the second half of the season afer the magical Wilson pulled several wins out of his hat in the first half of the campaign. Don’t be surprised if GM John Schneider looks for upgrades along his OL in free agency (if affordable) or more likely in the draft after Wilson was inundated by Rams pass rushers in the playoff loss. Wilson, by the way, enters his tenth season next fall (where has the time gone?).
Washington (7-10)... True, WFT got into the playoffs on a quirk, as the NFC East was so bad this season that a team almost advanced out of the division with six wins, as would have been the case if the Dan Snyders lost their final game at Philly, which would have given the Giants the East at 6-10. No matter, consensus opinion around the league is that WFT is in a better place than some playoff qualifiers (like the Bears) as it has a robust defense to lean on, and a now cancer-free HC Ron Rivera looks like the steady hand at the till the franchise has lacked almost throughout the entirety of the quarter-century plus of Snyder ownership, save perhaps for Joe Gibbs' brief return engagement. Still, to make the next step, Rivera needs to solve the QB dilemma after the Dwayne Haskins experiment blew up in December, and Alex Smith’s heroic comeback from a terrible leg injury likely a very short-term fix. (Taylor Heinicke looked good enough in the playoff loss to the Bucs to merit consideration, too, though most likely to return in a backup role, perhaps to compete with holdover Kyle Allen). Expect new GM Martin Mayhew to get aggressive in looking for an answer; Deshaun Watson is surely on the radar if he becomes available (Carson Wentz might be on the move, too, though we doubt the Eagles would trade him within their division), as WFT likely first looks to a veteran alternative before settling for a first option in the upcoming draft class as it seeks to solve the QB riddle that has bedeviled the team for a generation. (Matthew Stafford is no longer on the radar as an option for Mayhew after the Rams won that bidding war last weekend.) The defense, featuring recent first-round stalwarts Chase Young and Montez Sweat collapsing pockets from the edge, looks ready to win now, which makes the immediate QB upgrade all the more important. Mayhew could also be looking to add a playmaker in free agency or early in the draft, perhaps to team opposite WR Terry McLaurin. If Mayhew can sort the QB situation quickly, however, WFT could become a legit force and the real beast of the NFC East sooner rather than later.
SUPER BOWLS IN RETROSPECT
With a couple of exceptions in recent years (Seattle’s 43-8 romp past Denver seven years ago at MetLife Stadium in particular), most recent Super Bowls have been competitive and exciting. Even the past two years when eventual scorelines featured 10 and 11-point wins, though both of those games, featuring the Patriots over the Rams two years ago, and the Chiefs over the 49ers last season, were up for grabs into the final minutes (Kansas City even rallying from 10 points down in the 4th Q). Until the last two years, when the short-priced chalk Patriots (laying 2½) and Chiefs (laying 1) prevailed, underdogs had covered 7 of the previous 10 “Supes” (and it would have been 8 of 10 had the three-point dog Falcons not conspired to blow a 25-point lead in spectacular fashion in LI at Houston vs. Bill Belichick’s New England). All of this after an extended run of chalk-dominated and often-blowout results for much of the ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s; since then, underdogs have closed the gap on favorites, whose all-time Super Bowl edge now stands at only 27-24-2. There has been one pick ’em clash, when the 49ers and Bengals met for the first of their two title meetings in Super Bowl XVI at the old Pontiac Silverdome in January of '82 (though some outlets also called the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl XLIX at Glendale as a pick’em; TGS has recorded that Supe as New England -1 instead, as the case with the Chiefs last year).
Yet even with many recent competitive Super Bowls, close to half of them (24 of 54) have still been decided by 14 points or more, which relates to many historical results that include pre-Super Bowl days when lopsided scorelines in title games were commonplace. Championship-game blowouts didn’t begin with the Super Bowl Shuffle ‘85 Bears; they’ve happened since the earliest days of the league, with several eras featuring more of them than others (such as the mid ‘50s, when a succession of NFL title games featured scorelines of 56-10, 38-14, 47-7, and 59-14) . And, as we have mentioned in past conference championship and Super Bowl previews, the all-time NFL blowout occurred in the 1940 title game, when George Halas and his Bears overwhelmed the Washington Redskins, 73-0! Those championship blowouts might simply be a football phenomenon, as even recent college title games have tended to be lopsided, with the last three of those decided by 28, 17, and 28 points, respectively, most recently Alabama’s rout of Ohio State on January 11.
Which team do we like, Chiefs or Bucs, at Tampa this Sunday? Check out our detailed forecast to find out. And don’t forget, for more interesting TGS Super Bowl history (including our all-time rankings of I thru LIV), please check out features this week and next on our website homepage!
SB PERFORMANCE BREAKDOWN
Favorites/Underdogs... 27-24-2 (1 pick)
Favorites straight up... 35-18 (1 pick)
Favored by 0-3... 9-6
Favored by 3 ½-6 ½... 7-8
Favored by 7-9 ½ ...4-4-1
Favored by 10-13 ½... 5-4
Favored by 14 or more... 2-2-1
MARGINS OF VICTORY
MARGIN... NO. OF GAMES
14 or more... 24
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