We knew the matchups and locations of all 256 NFL games for 2020, but now we know the dates and the sequence in which they will be played. Skimming through the full schedule confirmed my Over/Under optimism for certain teams and tempered it for others. Among the things I looked for were clusters. Whether it’s facing a batch of lousy teams or quarterbacks late in the year or a run of consecutive games against superior teams to start, several things jumped out to me.
All observations, however, come with this disclaimer. Last season the 49ers went 13-3 and held a double-digit lead late in the Super Bowl. The Bengals went 2-14 and picked first in the draft. Those teams met early in the season, and the Bengals were favored. That illustrates how unpredictable the NFL can be, especially when breaking down games months in advance.
Jets Over 6.5: Sticking with this one, but the schedule scares me. Considering they got off to a bad start in 2019 and never recovered, I think a good start this year is crucial. If the Jets have improved, as I think they have, they will need to show it quickly. September consists of tough road games against the Bills and Colts, with a home game vs. the 49ers sandwiched between. They conclude the opening stretch with a short-week matchup against improved Denver. Anything less than 2-2 and the New York media will fervently begin the Adam Gase watch. Keeping me optimistic, though, is my belief that the six AFC East games are winnable and that they also have manageable home games against the Raiders and Cardinals.
Ravens Under 11.5: Another opinion that has weakened after seeing the schedule. Any hope the Browns or Steelers have of snatching away the AFC North crown will have to be acted on swiftly. The Ravens’ December schedule is an early gift from Santa. Their last four games come against the Browns, Giants, Jaguars and Bengals. All four picked in the top 10 of the recent draft. This layup line to end the Ravens’ season is something Andy Reid and the Chiefs can use to alleviate any possibility of a midseason malaise, considering the added emphasis on attaining the No. 1 seed, which carries the only playoff bye under the new format. The Ravens also play zero games against teams coming off byes. I still would not go Over the number here. I think having extended tape on QB Lamar Jackson makes the Ravens more beatable, and it’s such a high number that any sprained ankle or minor injury causing him to miss a few weeks makes it hard to hit the 12 wins needed for the Over.
Bucs Under 10: I had no opinion on this until the schedule came out. When you add Tom Brady, you also get the spotlight that accompanies him. The Buccaneers will play five prime-time games, and their December matchup against the Lions is one of a handful of games eligible to be moved to Saturday. Prime time often means short rest for the next week, as the Buccaneers will play a league-high five, and possibly six, games against opponents with more rest. This is a concern for a team relying on veteran players in pivotal roles. The Week 1 matchup in New Orleans will be the first time in 75 regular-season games that Brady’s team will not be favored. The Bucs also play two opponents coming off byes, tied for the most in the league. Schedule-makers did Brady’s new squad no favors.
Texans Over 7.5. A pick and a team on which I was very high, and apparently I was not alone, as I’ve seen it drift up to eight in some places. But the first month is a minefield that has scared me off that position. If the Texans have any lingering heartache from blowing a 24-point lead in Kansas City last postseason, it will have to subside quickly. In the opener, the Texans return to the scene of the meltdown to play the Chiefs, followed by a visit from the Ravens and the most recent MVP, Lamar Jackson. They conclude the opening stretch with a visit to Pittsburgh and a home date with the Vikings. Based on season win totals, they play the two best teams in the first two weeks and have a chance to see their season derailed by the September gauntlet the league put in front of them.
Packers Under 9.5. Liked this one beforehand, and now I love it. One of the more challenging patches any team faces is the Packers’ midseason stretch of four games in 19 days. Game 1 of that span is in Tampa, followed by games against the Texans and Vikings before concluding with a short-week trip to play a physical 49ers team that dominated them twice a year ago. The Packers open in Minnesota and play a rigorous first-place schedule. All their statistics suggest a regression, and seeing the slate they drew, that regression will be accelerated.
Vikings Over 9. Sticking with this one despite a tough first month. While the Packers have a daunting midseason run, the other NFC North co-favorite faces a challenge much earlier. The Vikings play four of their first five games against playoff teams from last year. Those four teams not only made the playoffs, all won at least one postseason game. But after that it eases up. The schedule-makers were forgiving to the Vikings, putting them in prime time only twice, leading to only two games in which they will have less rest than their opponents.
Eagles Under 9.5. Seeing the schedule confirmed my conviction here. The NFC East looks like a two-team race again. While the Cowboys play the fifth-easiest schedule based on season win totals, the Eagles face a first-place schedule that includes a grueling midseason stretch — 49ers, Steelers, Ravens, Thursday night vs. the Giants, then the Cowboys. These are physical opponents, with the easiest coming on a short week in a division game. For a team that has had problems staying healthy, this five-game run has to scare Philly fans. The Eagles also face the Saints and the Packers.
Bills Under 9.5. Scheduling was one of the big reasons I liked the Under here, and seeing the dates enhanced that feeling. Last year the Bills feasted on one of the easiest schedules, beating only one playoff opponent, the 9-7 Titans with Marcus Mariota. If the Bills are going to win their first division title this century, they will likely need to build an early cushion. December provides only one home game, against the Steelers, and road games against the Patriots, Broncos and 49ers. Tough defenses and some possibly unfavorable weather await a quarterback in Josh Allen who has struggled to throw with accuracy. The schedule has flipped from 26th most difficult last year to one of the five hardest, and I remain skeptical they are up to the challenge.