The NFL is back as Kansas City Chiefs begin their Super Bowl defence overnight… but can Patrick Mahomes and Co repeat? Will Lamar Jackson inspire the Baltimore Ravens to glory? And how will Tom Brady find life after the New England Patriots?
- Inspired by Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs won the Superbowl in Miami
- But they now begin defence of the Vince Lombardi trophy in the new NFL season
- New campaign has brought new changes including Tom Brady at Tampa Bay
- Sportsmail preview the 2020 season that gets underway Friday morning (BST)
When Patrick Mahomes swept the Kansas City Chiefs to Super Bowl victory in Miami, all the talk was of a dynasty.
The seven months since have seen unprecedented change. But the NFL, a $25billion (£19m) industry, takes a knee for no-one.
The 2020 season begins overnight as the Chiefs host the Houston Texans. It features the game’s highest-paid players as Mahomes duels with fellow 2017 draftee Deshaun Watson.
With protests, without fans, the addition of two new stadiums and two more playoff teams, plus Tom Brady playing in red, it promises to be a season like no other.
Kansas City Chiefs head into the new season looking to repeat their Superbowl success
Super Bowl MVP Mahomes dislocated his knee in week seven, missed two games and mounted a miraculous recovery. It culminated with a crescendo of comeback victories in the playoffs against Houston, Tennessee and, most dramatically of all, San Francisco in Miami.
After rewarding the now fully fit Mahomes with a blockbuster $450million (£350m), 10-year deal, the Chiefs also tied up head coach Andy Reid and have kept most of their high-octane offense in place. In the draft, they added running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to bolster their ground game.
Defensively, nomadic playmaker Tyrann Mathieu has found a home, and if his leadership and ball-hawking skills can infuse the Chiefs with the kind of belief which kept the San Francisco 49ers scoreless in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, don’t rule out a repeat.
But history is not on their side. Just 12 teams have made it to back-to-back Super Bowls. And only seven have won consecutive championships, the last being the New England Patriots in 2004.
Patrick Mahomes helped lead the Chiefs to success and will be now hoping for a repeat
WEEK ONE (UK time)
Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs
New York Jets at Buffalo Bills
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Football Team
Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens
Las Vegas Raiders at Carolina Panthers
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions
Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriot
Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants
Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos
Who else is in contention?
The Baltimore Ravens looked set to sweep into the Super Bowl, but met a buzzsaw in the shape of the Tennessee Titans and an inspired Derrick Henry in the Divisional Round.
With last season’s MVP Lamar Jackson thriving in Greg Roman’s scheme, the Ravens possess a fearsome defense, which has been bolstered by linebacker Patrick Queen in the draft and veteran lineman Calais Campbell in free agency.
Not for the first time, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan felt the Vince Lombardi trophy slip from his grasp.
And Jimmy Garoppolo, who already has two rings, may wonder if he’ll get the chance to add to them.
And while Shanahan is an offensive genius, the 49ers steamrollered into the Super Bowl thanks to a smothering defensive line, which bar the departed Deforest Buckner, remains intact.
In a season where continuity could be vital, the New Orleans Saints boast one of the best rosters and a coach and a quarterback who have done it all before.
But if they are to triumph they must do so without the deafening roar inside the Superdome, for the time being at least.
Backed by a rock-solid defense, can the Steelers reach the playoffs for the first time since 2017, a relative drought in Pittsburgh?
Elsewhere, the Seattle Seahawks are always there or thereabouts and Titans head coach Mike Vrabel was already giving opposition quarterbacks nightmares without Jadeveon Clowney.
Dallas should be explosive and the second year of Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay will be compulsive viewing for a myriad of reasons.
Dark horses? Indianapolis. Outsiders? Don’t sleep on Denver.
Last season’s MVP Lamar Jackson will hope to lead the Baltimore Ravens to the Superbowl
Super Bowl spending spree
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXV in 2003 with a loaded defense. This season they are going about things a little differently.
No team has ever won the Super Bowl in their own stadium, but with the Raymond James Stadium set to host the big dance in February, the notoriously miserly Glazer family morphed into a bottomless pit.
In March came Tom Brady on a two-year, fully guaranteed $50million (£39m) deal. He may be 42, but is a six-time Super Bowl-winner and arguably the greatest quarterback to have played the game.
Next, Brady’s old sparring partner Rob Gronkowski pulled himself off a party beach and out of retirement. But can the tight end’s battered body still do it?
And when Leonard Fournette was waived by Jacksonville, the bowling ball running back – who has run for 1,000yards-plus in two of his three seasons with the Jaguars – was added to Bruce Arians’ offense.
With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, two lanky, fast receivers who have a claim to being the league’s best duo, already in situ, watching the Bucs won’t be dull. And thanks to some new duds, they look good too.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have brought in veteran quarterback Tom Brady, 42
What about the Patriots?
Cam Newton is Brady’s successor at the new look New England.
Newton is looking to resurrect his career after multiple injuries, and has received praise from Bill Belichick, while offensive co-ordinator Josh McDaniels now has a mobile quarterback at his disposal.
But with a league-high eight players opting out due to Covid concerns (among them linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung), the Patriots also saw key defensive pieces move on in free agency.
The division has got stronger. Buffalo added receiver Stefon Diggs while their No 3 overall defense retains nine starters. Miami are steadily rebuilding, but the Jets are, well, still the Jets.
It would take a brave man to bet against Belichick: the Patriots have won the AFC East 19 times in the past 21 years, and for the last 11 seasons in a row. But despite their vast experience, a deep playoff run appears beyond them.
Cam Newton has succeeded Brady at the New England Patriots at quarterback
An invisible opponent
The NFL and NFL Players Association agreed to an amended collective bargaining agreement in July and as a result, some 71 opted out of the season on health grounds due to Covid-19.
They include right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif from the Super Bowl-winning Chiefs, who will continue to study medicine at Harvard.
But in a contact sport featuring 256 regular season games in multiple destinations, Covid-19 will undoubtedly continue to play its part.
After seeing baseball’s season derailed by a raft of positive tests, last month hearts were in mouths after 77 NFL players from 11 teams produced positive test results. They were quickly deemed to be ‘false positives’ from the New Jersey laboratory.
‘It will not be easy, and it will be different,’ NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, ‘but we are prepared.’
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif has opted out of competing in the NFL this season on health grounds
Movement for change
Colin Kaepernick began protesting against police brutality and social inequality by refusing to stand for the national anthem before a 2016 preseason game.
Players have continued to kneel before matches, to the chagrin of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and owners such as Jerry Jones, who in 2017 said: ‘We cannot in anyway give the implication that we tolerate disrespecting the flag. We know that there is a serious debate in this country about those issues, but there is no question in my mind, that the [NFL] and the Dallas Cowboys are going to stand up for the flag.’
But in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, NFL players posted a video demanding social change.
‘I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to,’ Roger Goodell said somewhat awkwardly last month to former NFL player Emmanuel Acho on Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.
As members of the Trump family tweet against the NFL, it is inevitable that more players will kneel before games. That will start with the likes of Mahomes and many of his team-mates before the curtain-raiser against the Houston Texans.
And while there is a perceived change of opinion across the league, it is worth noting that Kaepernick last featured in an NFL game on January 1, 2017. The quarterback has made it to this year’s Madden, but he is still without a team.
More playoff teams, fewer fans
First the World Cup in 1998, then the European championship 18 years later. Now the NFL decides to tinker with the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mantra.
In extending the number of teams in the playoffs from 12 to 14 – in doing so meaning only the top seed in each conference receive a first-round bye – 44 per cent of teams will be in the playoffs.
It increases the value of the No 1 seed (in the last seven Super Bowls every team has received a first round bye) and will likely extend coaching careers. Last season this would have seen the 8-8 Steelers and the Rams (9-7) sneak in.
Watching the game will also be different. The Chicago Bears, the Raiders and Washington will play without fans at home games for the entire season.
The Jets, Giants, Bills and Eagles will not be letting supporters in ‘until further notice’, while others will play in empty stadiums until October.
But the lack of a league-wide, uniform approach – the Miami Dolphins will allow 13,000 into their opener against the Bills – has open the door to criticism.
‘I think it’s honestly ridiculous that there will be on the surface what appears to be a playing field that’s like that, inconsistently across the league with the different away stadiums,’ Bills head coach Sean McDermott said.
Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott has criticised the lack of uniform concerning how NFL teams will be allowing fans into stadiums this term
LONGEST SERVING HEAD COACHES
Bill Belichick (New England Patriots): January 27, 2000
Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints): January 18, 2006
Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers): January 27, 2007
John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens): January 19, 2008
Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks): January 9, 2010
Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs): January 4, 2013
Bill O’Brien (Houston Texans): January 2, 2014
Mike Zimmer (Minnesota Vikings): January 15, 2014
Dan Quinn (Atlanta Falcons): February 2, 2015
Doug Pederson (Philadelphia Eagles): January 18, 2016
April’s virtual draft was regarded as one of the best in years at wide receiver. Jerry Jeudy, considered the most NFL-ready wideout since Larry Fitzgerald, will line up opposite superstar in the making Courtland Sutton in Denver.
The Cowboys stole in for CeeDee Lamb at 17, and the slot receiver will be the beneficiary of playing in an offense featuring Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup.
At quarterback, how will No 1 overall pick Joe Burrow fare in Cincinnati? We will soon find out, unlike his peers Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, who begin the season as back-ups in Miami and at the Chargers, respectively.
There are five new head coaches – Matt Rhule is the new sheriff in town in Carolina, while Kevin Stefanski gets his big break in charge of some big names in Cleveland after leaving the Vikings after 14 years.
It’s all change in the NFC East, with Joe Judge and his physical practices shaking things up at the New York Giants and Ron Rivera rebuilding in Washington.
After a year out, Mike McCarthy, who won the Super Bowl with Green Bay in 2011, takes over at the circus known as the Dallas Cowboys, for whom a return to the playoffs is a minimum.
Denver Broncos’ Jerry Jeudy is considered the most NFL-ready wideout since Larry Fitzgerald
New teams, new grounds
In light of protests against racial injustice and police brutality, owner Dan Snyder finally succumbed after years of pressure, changing the name of his franchise to the Washington Football Team.
Elsewhere, the Raiders, once of Los Angeles, have been uprooted again from their spiritual home of Oakland and will play in the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. The 65,000-seater stadium cost $1.9billion to build and is a throw of the dice from the Strip.
250 miles southwest in Inglewood, CA, is the SoFi Stadium, the new home to the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers.
Also known as Stan Canyon, the $5bn (£1.5bn) stadium is three times the size of Disneyland was the dream of Rams and Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke.
It is the second stadium in the NFL to be shared by two teams – the Jets and Giants play at MetLife Stadium, NJ – and will host Super Bowl LVI in 2022.
Against all odds
A little over four years ago, Teddy Bridgewater almost lost his left leg after a non-contact injury at the Vikings practice facility.
He convalesced. He returned to play an emotional series for Minnesota at US Bank Stadium. He moved to the New York Jets in 2018 before the Saints offered him the back-up spot.
And when Drew Brees was injured last season, Bridgewater went 5-0 to keep up the Saints play-off charge.
Now handed the starting spot in Carolina after Cam Newton’s departure, Bridgewater, 27, is easy to root for. Still loved in Minnesota, he is adored by team-mates and fans alike.
In Washington, there is an equally compelling story.
Quarterback Alex Smith, the No 1 pick of the 2005 draft, made the final 53-man roster after breaking the tibia and fibula in his right leg against the Houston Texans in November 2018.
Now 36, Smith underwent 17 surgeries and almost had the leg amputated. His recuperation is documented by ESPN in the remarkable – and, this cannot be stressed enough, gruesome – Project 11.
While he begins the season at No 3 on Washington’s depth chart, that Smith is even standing is testament to the man.
Ales Smith has comeback from almost having his leg amputated to feature for Washington
The NFL is brutal. On and off the field. The most punishing position is that of running back, with the average career lasting 2.57 years. Enter Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson, who have 28 years of experience between them.
Gore, the third leading rusher of all time, has pounded his way to 15,347 yards.
Now entering his 16th season and first with the New York Jets – he has only missed 14 regular season games in that spell – Gore has the chance to line up against all of his former teams this season, beginning with the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. The 49ers, Colts and Dolphins follow.
Peterson, 37, was released by Washington and quickly picked up by Detroit. He sits at fifth in the all-time list with 14,216 rushing yards.
However long the pair go on for, they will be unlikely to trouble No 1 Emmitt Smith (18,355 yards), nor Walter Payton (16,726 yards) at No 2.
But Peterson will have his eyes on Detroit Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, who sits at No 4 with 15,269 yards.
Frank Gore is preparing for his first season with the New York Jets and his 16th overall
Efe Obada made the Carolina Panthers’ final 53-man roster on Saturday, was waived on Sunday and re-signed on Monday. Now in his third year, the versatile defensive lineman will hope to make a significant contribution after featuring in 26 games in the past two seasons.
Elsewhere, veteran linebacker Jack Crawford will suit up in Tennessee, and the Scottish Hammer, Jamie Gillan, enters his second season as punter at Cleveland.
Efe Obada, who grew up in London, has made the Carolina Panthers’ final 53-man roster
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