Sep 10, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! Let's preview the NFL season.

  • Fun fact: Today is the 20th sports equinox in history (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB in action on the same day) and we could get up to six more this month alone.
  • Plus: We also have the U.S. Open (women's semifinals), MLS, WNBA, college football (Miami vs. UAB) and the first event of the PGA Tour season (Safeway Open).

Today's word count: 2,308 words (9 minutes).

1 big thing: The NFL is back and weirder than ever

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Chiefs beat the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2. One day later, the U.S. declared COVID-19 a public health emergency.

  • A lot has happened in the 223 days since then, highlighted by Tom Brady's arrival in Tampa Bay via free agency and Joe Burrow's arrival in Cincinnati via the NFL's first-ever virtual draft.
  • Teams aced the training camp protocols, but without any preseason games, expect to see some rust when they finally take the field for game day.

What to expect: "The mayhem of the sideline will be replaced by a sparse smattering of players and coaches, who, like the on-field officials, will be wearing masks," writes WashPost's Adam Kilgore.

  • Lots of protocols: Electronic whistles are in; cheerleaders, mascots and jersey swaps are out. Crowd noise will be piped in by audio mixers, and footballs will be rinsed with chemicals.
  • Cavernous stadiums: Only six teams will allow fans in Week 1, and none will surpass 25% capacity. Those six teams: Browns (10%), Chiefs (22%), Colts (3%) Cowboys (TBD), Dolphins (20%) and Jaguars (25%).

Go deeper:

2. Key storylines to watch
Broncos players join in a Denver protest in May. Photo: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images
  • Player protests/social justice: In the wake of a summer filled with strikes and protests, NFL players are expected to keep the focus on race and social justice reform. End zones will be inscribed with two slogans: "It Takes All Of Us" on one side, "End Racism" on the other.
  • Expanded playoffs: Unlike baseball, the NFL's expanded playoffs are not a temporary measure devised for a pandemic season. Going forward, 14 teams (up from 12) will make the postseason and just the top seed (not top two) in each conference will earn a first-round bye.
Cam Newton. Photo: Steven Senne-Pool/Getty Images
  • Player shuffle: A host of current and former stars are rocking new jerseys, including Tom Brady (TB), Cam Newton (NE), Philip Rivers (IND), Stefon Diggs (BUF), David Johnson (HOU), DeAndre Hopkins (ARI), Melvin Gordon (DEN), Todd Gurley (ATL), Trent Williams (SF) and Calais Campbell (BAL).
  • Coaching shuffle: There are also five new head coaches: Kevin Stefanski (Browns), Ron Rivera (Washington), Joe Judge (Giants), Matt Rhule (Panthers) and Mike McCarthy (Cowboys).
Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
  • PI is non-reviewable: Well, that was a fun experiment. After a missed call cost the Saints a 2019 playoff game, the league made a rule change allowing coaches to challenge pass interference. It failed miserably, so we're back to square one.
  • Rookie QBs: Only reigning Heisman winner Joe Burrow (Bengals) is slated to start Week 1, but we're likely to see Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins) and Justin Herbert (Chargers) at some point, and maybe even Jordan Love (Packers).
SoFi Stadium. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images
  • SoFi Stadium: The Chargers and Rams' new shared stadium cost a record-breaking $5 billion. Unfortunately, fans are barred until 2021.
  • Raiders in Vegas: Oakland losing the Warriors and Raiders in consecutive years is inarguably cruel, but something about the Raiders in Sin City just makes sense. Their new stadium is a marvel, but fans will have to wait until next year to see it in person.
3. Preseason power rankings
Table: Axios Visuals

Look: Week 1 schedule

4. AFC preview
Giphy
AFC East

1. New England Patriots: Will Bill Belichick find a way to make Cam Newton look like an MVP again?

2. Buffalo Bills: Will they follow up their first 10-win season of the century with another? Pairing Josh Allen's cannon with new speedy WR Stefon Diggs certainly won't hurt in that endeavor.

  • Top 100: CB Tre'Davious White (26), WR Stefon Diggs (79)
  • Playoff odds: 52%

3. New York Jets: Young QB Sam Darnold showed moderate improvement as a sophomore, but nowhere near enough to make the Jets contenders. Coach Adam Gase's seat could get mighty hot if this team doesn't at least show a little promise.

  • Top 100: None
  • Playoff odds: 27%

4. Miami Dolphins: How long before Fitzmagic hands over the reins to rookie sensation Tua Tagovailoa?

  • Top 100: None
  • Playoff odds: 24%
AFC North

1. Baltimore Ravens: They lost two games last year and reigning MVP Lamar Jackson is "a million times ahead" of last season, according to teammates. Nobody wants to play Baltimore.

  • Top 100: QB Lamar Jackson (3), OT Ronnie Stanley (43), CB Marlon Humphrey (74), K Justin Tucker (98)
  • Playoff odds: 82%

2. Pittsburgh Steelers: All things considered, going 8-8 last year with a revolving door of backup QBs wasn't so terrible. With Big Ben healthy again, toppling the Ravens isn't out of the question.

  • Top 100: OLB T.J. Watt (31), S Minkah Fitzpatrick (42), DT Cameron Heyward (73), QB Ben Roethlisberger (78), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (100)
  • Playoff odds: 65%

3. Cleveland Browns: The talent is too great for the results to be so poor. Baker Mayfield needs to live up to the promise of his electric 2018 rookie campaign.

  • Top 100: WR Odell Beckham Jr. (40), RB Nick Chubb (59), CB Denzel Ward (89)
  • Playoff odds: 41%

4. Cincinnati Bengals: They got their QB of the future in Joe Burrow, but don't expect success in this stacked division just yet.

  • Top 100: None
  • Playoff odds: 12%
AFC South

1. Tennessee Titans: Last year's surprise playoff darling will look to surpass the same 9-7 record they've compiled in four straight seasons.

  • Top 100: RB Derrick Henry (28), S Kevin Byard (77), QB Ryan Tannehill (90), WR A.J. Brown (97)
  • Playoff odds: 60%

2. Indianapolis Colts: How much gas does Philip Rivers have left in the tank? Solid roster around him.

  • Top 100: G Quenton Nelson (44), DT DeForest Buckner (51), ILB Darius Leonard (53)
  • Playoff odds: 52%

3. Houston Texans: They paid Deshaun Watson, traded DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson and now must try to erase the memory of turning a 24-0 divisional round lead over the Chiefs into a 51-31 shellacking.

  • Top 100: QB Deshaun Watson (10), DE J.J. Watt (38), OT Laremy Tunsil (64)
  • Playoff odds: 38%

4. Jacksonville Jaguars: There are three above-average teams in this division; the Jaguars are not one of them.

  • Top 100: OLB Josh Allen (91)
  • Playoff odds: 13%
AFC West

1. Kansas City Chiefs: The reigning champs are the best team in football.

  • Top 100: QB Patrick Mahomes (1), WR Tyreek Hill (11), TE Travis Kelce (17), DT Chris Jones (29), S Tyrann Mathieu (36), OT Mitchell Schwartz (72), DE Frank Clark (85)
  • Playoff odds: 86%

2. Denver Broncos: Losing Von Miller to a season-ending injury is a brutal blow. Now, it's all about seeing whether second-year QB Drew Lock can give Denver some much-needed stability under center.

  • Top 100: OLB Von Miller (46), S Justin Simmons (92)
  • Playoff odds: 32%

3. Los Angeles Chargers: Losing franchise legend Philip Rivers could make things tough in L.A., and that's to say nothing of superstar safety Derwin James' season-ending knee injury.

  • Top 100: DE Joey Bosa (25), WR Keenan Allen (69)
  • Playoff odds: 31%

4. Las Vegas Raiders: The Silver and Black have won just a single playoff game since 2002. Maybe their new Vegas digs will help turn things around.

  • Top 100: RB Josh Jacobs (88)
  • Playoff odds: 28%
5. NFC preview
Giphy
NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles: Can Carson Wentz put together consecutive healthy seasons?

  • Top 100 (per ESPN): QB Carson Wentz (39), TE Zach Ertz (48), DT Fletcher Cox (49), CB Darius Slay (61), OT Lane Johnson (71)
  • Playoff odds (per FiveThirtyEight): 57%

2. Dallas Cowboys: Weapons abound, particularly at receiver. Now it's up to Mike McCarthy in his first year at the helm to use them wisely.

  • Top 100: QB Dak Prescott (20), RB Ezekiel Elliott (24), G Zack Martin (45), WR Amari Cooper (56), OT Tyron Smith (60), DE Demarcus Lawrence (65)
  • Playoff odds: 63%

3. New York Giants: Saquon Barkley might put up video game numbers this year, but if Daniel Jones doesn't cut down on the fumbles it could all be for naught.

  • Top 100: RB Saquon Barkley (16)
  • Playoff odds: 17%

4. Washington Football Team: New coach, new name ... same owner. The outlook isn't brilliant.

  • Top 100: None
  • Playoff odds: 11%
NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers is still just 36. Will Green Bay regret drafting his future replacement instead of a difference-making receiver to pair alongside Pro Bowler Davante Adams?

  • Top 100: QB Aaron Rodgers (23), WR Davante Adams (33), OT David Bakhtiari (34), OLB Za'Darius Smith (58), RB Aaron Jones (63), CB Jaire Alexander (94)
  • Playoff odds: 54%

2. Minnesota Vikings: They've undergone an incredible amount of turnover from a year ago, but the division remains up for grabs, especially if Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen stay healthy.

  • Top 100: RB Dalvin Cook (41), DE Danielle Hunter (55), S Harrison Smith (62), DE Yannick Ngakoue (68), WR Adam Thielen (80), QB Kirk Cousins (82), ILB Eric Kendricks (96)
  • Playoff odds: 50%

3. Chicago Bears: Well, at least the defense is exciting, right?

  • Top 100: OLB Khalil Mack (21), S Eddie Jackson (75)
  • Playoff odds: 48%

4. Detroit Lions: They haven't won the division since 1993! And I wouldn't bank on this being the year they break through, either.

  • Top 100: QB Matthew Stafford (52), WR Kenny Golladay (76)
  • Playoff odds: 25%
NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints: We know what Drew Brees and company can do in the regular season, but they're running out of time for their Hall of Famer to bring them back to the promised land before he hangs 'em up.

  • Top 100: WR Michael Thomas (5), QB Drew Brees (14), DE Cameron Jordan (30), RB Alvin Kamara (50), CB Marshon Lattimore (54), OT Ryan Ramczyk (66), ILB Demario Davis (87)
  • Playoff odds: 72%

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brady surrounded by the best offensive weapons he's had since 2007. Sign me up.

  • Top 100: WR Mike Evans (22), QB Tom Brady (32), WR Chris Godwin (57), OLB Shaquil Barrett (84), TE Rob Gronkowski (99)
  • Playoff odds: 50%

3. Atlanta Falcons: Another slow start like last year (2-7) will sink them, as five of their final seven games come against the Saints, Chiefs and Bucs.

  • Top 100: WR Julio Jones (13), QB Matt Ryan (37), DT Grady Jarrett (86)
  • Playoff odds: 34%

4. Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey is as explosive as it gets and Teddy Bridgewater is easy to root for, but the Panthers could struggle in what looks to be a rebuilding year.

  • Top 100: RB Christian McCaffrey (6)
  • Playoff odds: 19%
NFC West

1. San Francisco 49ers: The Super Bowl still stings and the division has undoubtedly improved. Are they still favorites, or did they miss their window?

  • Top 100: TE George Kittle (9), DE Nick Bosa (15), CB Richard Sherman (67), DE Arik Armstead (93)
  • Playoff odds: 68%

2. Seattle Seahawks: Someone's going to have to explain to me how Russell Wilson has never received a single MVP vote. 2020 — do your thing.

  • Top 100: QB Russell Wilson (4), S Jamal Adams (19), ILB Bobby Wagner (27), WR Tyler Lockett (83)
  • Playoff odds: 53%

3. Los Angeles Rams: No Gurley, no problem? Sean McVay will rely on defensive superstars and RB by committee to attempt a third division crown in four years.

  • Top 100: DT Aaron Donald (2), CB Jalen Ramsey (35), WR Cooper Kupp (95)
  • Playoff odds: 49%

4. Arizona Cardinals: Remains to be seen how successful they'll be, but few if any teams will be as exciting as this bunch.

  • Top 100: WR DeAndre Hopkins (8), OLB Chandler Jones (25), QB Kyler Murray (47), CB Patrick Peterson (70)
  • Playoff odds: 28%
6. New book: "The Dynasty"

Courtesy: Simon & Schuster

Less than six months after Brady departed New England, we're getting some behind-the-scenes insight into the split — and the empire that was built before he left — in Jeff Benedict's new book, "The Dynasty."

Highlights:

  • Brady was very close to leaving after the 2017 Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. His relationship with Belichick had fractured significantly that season, and his wife, Gisele, was mad that Tom was still getting treated like just another guy on the team.
  • Remember when Vladimir Putin stole Robert Kraft's Super Bowl ring? The book provides new details about how the Bush administration asked Kraft to pretend it was a gift as a matter of foreign policy.

Buy the book.

7. By the numbers
Data: American Gaming Association; Cartogram: Axios Visuals
  • 🇺🇸 19 states: The sports betting industry is banking big time on the NFL. 19 states offer legal sports betting, up from 13 at this time last year, and 17% of American adults are expected to place a bet this season, per the American Gaming Association.
  • 😷 .0057%: The NFL conducted 17,519 COVID-19 tests on players last week, and there was only one new confirmed positive test (.0057% positivity rate).
  • 💵 $13 billion: Panthers owner David Tepper ($13 billion net worth) remains the NFL's richest owner, according to Forbes' list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Tepper is 41st overall and 14 more NFL owners are on the list.
  • 🎓 55 players: Alabama has 55 players on NFL 53-man rosters as of Monday, the most of any school. Ohio State (50) is second, followed by LSU (42), Florida (39), Penn State (34), Michigan (33), Georgia (32) and Miami (31).
8. Sept. 10, 1937: The undefeated Bulldogs
Screenshot: Pinterest

83 years ago today, the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the second American Football League began their undefeated season with a 21-0 win over the Pittsburgh Americans.

  • Why it matters: The Bulldogs are one of just three professional football teams to go undefeated en route to winning a championship, joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins (NFL) and the 1948 Cleveland Browns (AAFC).
  • Formed with the intention of joining the NFL (and passed over in favor of the Cleveland Rams), the Bulldogs were the first major-league football team to play its home games on the West Coast.

1937 AFL standings:

  1. L.A. Bulldogs (8-0-0)
  2. Rochester Tigers (3-3-1)
  3. New York Yankees (2-3-1)
  4. Cincinnati Bengals (2-3-2)
  5. Boston Shamrocks (2-5)
  6. Pittsburgh Americans (0-3)
9. 🏆 Playoff trivia
Giphy
  • Question: Three NFL teams have playoff droughts of longer than four seasons. Who are they?
  • Hint: Two AFC, one NFC.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 📺 Tonight: Texans at Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes (L) and Deshaun Watson. Photo: David Eulitt/Getty Images

Eight months ago, Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs from a 24-0 hole to beat Deshaun Watson and the Texans in the playoffs. Now, the two highest-paid QBs in NFL history face off once again.

  • Lines: KC -9.0 | O/U: 53.5
  • Watch: 8:20pm ET on NBC

Go deeper: Game preview

Bonus: 🔮 See the future
Screenshot: @CBSSports (Twitter)
Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "How about the Braves last night, huh?" Baker

Trivia answer: Jets (nine years), Buccaneers (12), Browns (17)