The NFL returns this week and it’s time to get back to football. Kickoff Weekend signals the start of a 256-game journey, one that promises hope for each of the league’s 32 teams as they set their sights on Super Bowl LV, which will be played on Sunday, February 7, 2021 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. The 101st season of NFL play kicks off on Thursday night (NBC, 8:20 PM ET) as the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans at Arrowhead Stadium in a rematch of the 2019 AFC Divisional Playoffs.
High scoring and close games are a hallmark of the NFL. In 2020, the league is building off one of the most prolific and competitive seasons in league history.
Last year, teams combined to score 1,244 offensive touchdowns (rushing and passing touchdowns combined), the second-most in a single season in NFL history, and 1,332 total touchdowns, the third-highest total in a single season in league annals. Additionally, 68 percent of games (174 of 256) were within one score (eight points) in the fourth quarter last season, tied for the fifth-most such games in a single season in NFL history, while 52.3 percent of games (134 of 256) were decided by eight-or-fewer points, the fifth-most such games in a single season.
Last season, a wave of young stars burst onto the scene, especially at the quarterback position. The 2019 season saw 208 games feature at least one starting quarterback under the age of 27, the most in a single season in NFL history. In total, quarterbacks under the age of 27 started 287 games and recorded 144 wins in those starts last season, both the highest single-season totals since 1970.
Three quarterbacks under the age of 25 – Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (2018 NFL Draft), Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes (2017 NFL Draft) and Houston’s Deshaun Watson (2017 NFL Draft) – have led their respective teams to division titles in each of the past two seasons.
The 2020 season will be filled with memorable moments, as young players emerge, familiar faces continue their climb up the record books and teams vie to make their mark in the postseason. Every team enters the season with hope and a trip to Tampa Bay for Super Bowl LV in mind. Below are a few reasons why.
The field is open
New in 2020, the NFL adopted a 14-team playoff format, with two additional Wild Card teams – one each in the American and National Football Conferences – qualifying for the postseason. Since 1990, when the NFL adopted the 12-team playoff format, at least four teams every season have qualified for the playoffs after failing to make the postseason the year before. Last season, five teams that missed the postseason in 2018 – Buffalo (10-6), Green Bay (13-3), Minnesota (10-6), San Francisco (13-3) and Tennessee (9-7) – qualified for the playoffs.
Both Green Bay (NFC North) and San Francisco (NFC West) won their divisions last year after missing the postseason in 2018 and at least two teams have won their divisions the season after missing the playoffs in 16 of the past 17 years.
In 15 of the past 17 seasons, at least one team finished in first place in its division the season after finishing in last or tied for last place. In fact, of the 48 teams in league history to go from “worst-to-first,” 25 of them have done so in the past 17 years (2003-19), including an NFL-record three such teams in 2005 and 2006. Two teams during that span, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles, won the Super Bowl after finishing in last place in their divisions the season before.
Will the Chiefs repeat as Super Bowl champions?
Fresh off their first Super Bowl in 50 years, the Chiefs begin their quest to repeat as champions. Only eight teams have repeated as champions since the first Super Bowl in 1967, with the 2004 Patriots (Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX) being the last team to accomplish the feat.
Records within reach
- New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees (77,416 passing yards and 547 touchdown passes) enters the 2020 season as the league’s all-time leader in both categories, while Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady (74,571 passing yards and 541 touchdown passes) ranks second …
- Brady (283 regular-season starts) can surpass Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre (298) for the most starts by a quarterback in NFL history …
- Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers (59,271 passing yards and 397 touchdown passes) can surpass Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino (61,361 passing yards and 420 touchdown passes) for fifth in each all-time category …
- Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (46,946 passing yards) can become the 11th player in league annals with 50,000 career passing yards …
- New York Jets running back Frank Gore (15,347 rushing yards and 19,243 scrimmage yards) can become the third player in NFL history with 16,000 career rushing yards and fourth player with 20,000 career scrimmage yards …
- Detroit running back Adrian Peterson (14,216 rushing yards) can surpass Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders (15,269 rushing yards) for fourth-most in league annals …
- Peterson (111 rushing touchdowns) can become the fourth player in NFL history with 120 career rushing touchdowns …
- Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald enters 2020 ranked second all-time in receptions (1,378) and receiving yards (17,083) …
- Fitzgerald (120 touchdown receptions) can surpass Pro Football Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison (128) for the fifth-most touchdown receptions in NFL history …
- Las Vegas tight end Jason Witten (1,215 receptions) can become the fourth player in league annals with 1,300 career receptions.
Familiar faces in new places
Five teams enter the 2020 season with a new head coach:
- Joe Judge with the New York Giants
- Mike McCarthy with Dallas
- Matt Rhule with Carolina
- Ron Rivera with Washington
- Kevin Stefanksi with Cleveland.
Five rookie head coaches have led their teams to the playoffs over the past three seasons:
- Matt LaFleur (Green Bay) in 2019
- Matt Nagy (Chicago) and Frank Reich (Indianapolis) in 2018
- Sean McVay (L.A. Rams) and Sean McDermott (Buffalo) in 2017.
Several notable players were on the move during the offseason, including
- quarterbacks Tom Brady (Tampa Bay) and Philip Rivers (Indianapolis)
- running backs Melvin Gordon (Denver) and Todd Gurley (Atlanta)
- wide receivers Stefon Diggs (Buffalo) and Deandre Hopkins (Arizona)
- tight ends Austin Hooper (Cleveland) and Jason Witten (Las Vegas)
- offensive linemen Brian Bulaga (L.A. Chargers), Jack Conklin (Cleveland) and Russell Okung (Carolina)
- defensive end Calais Campbell (Baltimore)
- defensive tackles Deforest Buckner (Indianapolis) and Jurrell Casey (Denver)
- linebackers Cory Littleton (Las Vegas) and Kyle Van Noy (Miami)
- cornerbacks Byron Jones (Miami) and Darius Slay (Philadelphia)
- safeties Jamal Adams (Seattle) and Malcolm Jenkins (New Orleans).
Young stars take the stage
Last season, four rookies – San Francisco’s Nick Bosa, Jacksonville’s Josh Allen, Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman and New Orleans’ Deonte Harris – earned Pro Bowl honours in their first season. Who could accomplish the feat in 2020?
Four quarterbacks – LSU’s Joe Burrow (No. 1 overall, Cincinnati), Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (No. 5, Miami), Oregon’s Justin Herbert (No. 6, L.A. Chargers) and Utah State’s Jordan Love (No. 26, Green Bay) – were selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. At least one rookie quarterback has started in Week 1 in 12 consecutive seasons, the longest streak in the NFL since at least 1950.
Featured image copyright: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports