If you are looking for an NFC playoff sleeper, the Atlanta Falcons are a fine choice. If you are looking for an NFC playoff super-duper sleeper, look no further than the Detroit Lions.
Reaching the playoffs in the NFC requires punching through a field of Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, that new guy in Tampa), clever coaches (Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Sean Payton), smoothly-run organizations (Eagles, Vikings) and teams that end up with gobs of high-end talent despite themselves (Cowboys).
The Falcons have been on the fringe of the playoff chase since midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots, so it’s not surprising to see them near the top of a sleepers list. The Lions? Well, read on.
Here’s a rundown on all the NFC teams on the fringe of the 2020 playoff chase, from Matt Ryan and the high-scoring (and high-score allowing) Falcons down to the Team With No Name.
2020 NFC playoff sleepers
Atlanta Falcons picking up where they left off
You know the deal with the Falcons: Matt Ryan, wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley; a defense that’s often plagued by injuries, miscues, and edge rushers who never develop past the prospect stage; and a steady diet of losses by scores like 53-32 and 34-33.
RB Todd Gurley’s arrival only makes the Falcons even more like themselves. But the Falcons defense improved during the team’s 6-2 second half of 2019, and it only has to be adequate to help Ryan win more shootouts than he loses and push the Falcons over .500.
Atlanta Falcons 2020 Prediction
8-8, third place in the NFC South.
Detroit Lions: In Matthew Stafford we trust (a little)
Football Outsiders Almanac projects the Lions with the most wins in the NFC North. The Almanac also acknowledges that it’s impossible to quantify the impact head coach Matt Patricia’s Beardo Bootleg Belichick routine will have if he starts ordering players to practice outside during blizzards or trading team leaders because of their Instagram likes.
Matthew Stafford was having a career year before his back injury, Kenny Golladay is one of the league’s best (and least talked about) young receivers, and the defense is teeming with ex-Patriots. The Lions are better on paper than the Bears and what’s left of the Vikings, and Stafford is the NFC North’s best quarterback whenever Aaron Rodgers beams down to Planet Passive Aggression (which is often).
I don’t trust Patricia enough to project the Lions into the postseason, but a sneaky Tennessee Titans’ like surge is possible, and that 6.5 over-under win total looks tasty.
Detroit Lions 2020 Prediction
7-9, third place in the NFC North
Arizona Cardinals: Kliff and Kyler’s idea factory
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury no doubt spent the offseason sequestered in his Fifty Shades of Ivory chadquarters in the San Fernando Valley* dreaming up new ways for QB Kyler Murray to distribute the ball to RB Kenyan Drake, WR Larry Fitzgerald, and new arrival DeAndre Hopkins.
Kingsbury’s four-receiver spread formations and over-engineered screen concepts were sometimes too cute by half in 2019, Murray took too many scared-rabbit sacks behind a suspect offensive line, and the defense was a little thin beyond big names Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson, and Budda Baker. The Cardinals still appear to be about a year away, thanks in part to a vicious divisional schedule. But they will be a tough out, and also a blast to watch.
Arizona Cardinals 2020 Prediction
6-10, fourth place in the NFC West.
Carolina Panthers: Pardon our appearance
Low-key collegiate mastermind Matt Rhule is the new coach. Lovable micro-passer Teddy Bridgewater is the new quarterback. Most of the familiar faces of the 2010s (coach Ron Rivera, QB Cam Newton, LB Luke Kuechly, TE Greg Olsen, and others) are gone. Select Christian McCaffrey at the top of your fantasy draft, hope Teddy Ballgame tosses him a dozen short passes per game, then check back with the Panthers in 2021 after they take down the “We’re Open During Renovations” sign.
Carolina Panthers 2020 Prediction
5-11, fourth place in the NFC South.
New York Giants: Jury is still out on Joe Judge
Joe Judge is either an outside-the-box thinker and galaxy-brained motivator or the latest dictatorial, hyper-paranoid product of Bill Belichick’s malfunctioning cloning vat. Judge refused to even utter the names of his own players (even QB Daniel Jones and RB Saquon Barkley) for most of the offseason, then transitioned into a training camp in which he reportedly expected players AND coaches to run laps after mental lapses (Jason Garrett must be Marathon Man by now), fastened tennis balls to defenders’ hands to eliminate holding penalties, and mused about thwapping Jones with some pads to get him ready for contact (don’t try this with Tom Brady, kids).
General manager Dave Gettleman has assembled one of the NFL’s weakest rosters, meaning Giants’ expectations are low. Judge should enjoy a mulligan year before we stop blaming Gettleman and start blaming his Harry High School tactics for the team’s shortcomings.
New York Giants 2020 Prediction
5-11, third place in the NFC East.
Washington Football Team: A football team based in Washington
Severe medical issues. Racial controversies. Never-ending leadership scandals. A sense that they are just trying to survive a year of tumult and transition in the hope of a brighter future. Forget “Washington Football Team”. They should just call themselves the “Washington 2020.”
Washington Football Team 2020 Prediction
4-12, fourth place in the NFC East.