While just about every other American sports league had to radically change its season because of the coronavirus, the N.F.L. waited patiently, insisting it would stick with its normal timeline. That confidence appears to have paid off, with the league set to kick off on Thursday, just as it said it would all along.
The league should look and feel quite different, as most Week 1 games are expected to be played minus fans in the stands — the Dallas Cowboys insist they will have a crowd — and plenty of important players have opted out.
But, focusing solely on the game, the N.F.L. is in great shape. A new generation of quarterbacks, led by Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens, has made the league even more exciting, and unexpected turnarounds by certain teams in recent seasons have made it seem that any franchise is a move or two away from relevance.
To get everyone caught up, we broke the league down, team by team, looking at what’s changed and what you might expect during what should be an exciting, unusual season.
A.F.C. East: Tom Brady Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Key move: Trading for wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Outlook: The Bills (10-6) made the playoffs in two of the past three seasons; two of the teams in their division are in talent-acquisition mode; and the other one just said goodbye to a six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. It might be time to get excited in Buffalo (something Bills fans are known for, even if Pinto Ron will have to be sprayed with condiments at home this year).
The known quantity is the team’s defense, where cornerback Tre’Davious White leads one of the best units in the N.F.L. and Ed Oliver, a second-year defensive tackle, is poised for a breakout.
The question is what to make of the offense. Quarterback Josh Allen mostly needs to hold steady and let the defense cook, but he’s young, has a big arm, and a lot of confidence. With Diggs and his fellow wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley running routes, the temptation to let the ball fly will be high.
Key move: Drafting Mekhi Becton.
Outlook: The Jets (7-9) began last season 1-7, but went 6-2 the rest of the way. That improvement was largely a reflection of their opponents, but it was also better than losing. That they landed a terrific left tackle prospect, Louisville’s Becton, at No. 11 in the draft was a cherry on top, because he can spend a decade protecting the team’s most prized asset: quarterback Sam Darnold.
On offense, things should look up. Darnold is the real deal, running back Le’Veon Bell can’t be as bad as he was last season — right? — and wide receiver Breshad Perriman was a good pickup.
The team’s sneaky-good defense is one of the masterworks of Gregg Williams’s career as a coordinator, but Williams has a challenge ahead of him since safety Jamal Adams was traded to Seattle and linebacker C.J. Moseley opted out of the season. Williams does not lack for confidence, but Adams and Moseley papered over deficiencies, so their absence will be felt.
New England Patriots
Key move: Signing quarterback Cam Newton?
Outlook: Throughout the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots (12-4) have jettisoned good players left and right without losing a step. But the constant over those two decades was quarterback Tom Brady.
By itself, Brady’s departure isn’t reason to be particularly skeptical about New England, because he was fairly bad last season. But factor in the defense’s loss of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts and Dont’a Hightower through free agency and opt-outs, and the team seems gutted.
There is potential for Newton to thrive in an offense designed by Josh McDaniels to suit a player of his skills. But that will require Newton be healthy — something that hasn’t happened in a while — and anyone from a lackluster group of wide receivers to step up.
It would be unwise to assume Belichick can’t make this work, especially when he has the best secondary in the N.F.L., but it would be a notable recovery even for someone with his track record.
Key move: Adding good players instead of subtracting them.
Outlook: After a series of fire-sale moves last season, there was talk of the Dolphins’ finishing 0-16. But a funny thing happened on the way to the No. 1 draft pick: Coach Brian Flores coaxed some surprising wins out of his team, including a season-ending shocker over New England, and Miami (5-11) dropped to the No. 5 pick.
Expecting much out of the team this year would be somewhat unreasonable, as the Dolphins have largely started from scratch. But with upgrades on both sides of the ball — particularly in the secondary — a pair of strong wide receivers in DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, and the potential for a strong running game if Jordan Howard or Matt Breida can stay healthy, the idea that Flores can make the team competitive is not outlandish.
A.F.C. North: The Division That Runs
Key move: Trading for defensive end Calais Campbell.
Outlook: Lamar Jackson of the Ravens (14-2) broke the N.F.L.’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback and threw 36 touchdown passes. You don’t need much more analysis of Baltimore’s success last season than that. But even after a second consecutive playoff letdown, there is no reason to believe the Ravens’ ground-heavy offense can’t succeed in the playoffs.
Some regression to the mean should be expected from Jackson. He runs at a rate that is highly unusual for a quarterback, and teams have probably picked apart film of his passing. But the Ravens have plenty of solid running backs to complement him, and they drafted another in Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins. The only real concern is the retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda.
Baltimore’s defense could actually be better. The veterans Derek Wolfe and Campbell were added to the team’s front seven, and while safety Earl Thomas was released late in training camp, the team is strong enough to sustain that loss.
Key move: Signing tight end Eric Ebron.
Outlook: The 2019 Steelers (8-8) had a .500 record even though quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appeared in just six quarters of football all season. That such a monumental achievement was viewed by many as disappointing is a testament to the standards for the team under Coach Mike Tomlin.
Roethlisberger is back after surgery to repair his right elbow, which should be great news for running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The team also added a major red zone weapon in Ebron.
The team doesn’t really need Roethlisberger to have another 5,000-yard passing season, since its defense should comfortably be one of the five best in the N.F.L. From T.J. Watt on the defensive line to Minkah Fitzpatrick in the secondary, and everyone in between, this is a loaded unit that could look even better if the offense stays on the field longer than it did last season.
Key move: Hiring Kevin Stefanski as head coach.
Outlook: It can’t be as bad as last season. The Browns simply have too much talent to go 6-10 again. Maybe.
The expectation under Coach Freddie Kitchens last season was that quarterback Baker Mayfield would take the leap to superstardom. Instead Mayfield seemed to get much worse than he was as a rookie in 2018, leaving running back Nick Chubb to be the team’s breakout star. While Chubb was nothing short of phenomenal, and may be capable of even more, an offense designed by Stefanski should lead to more opportunities for Mayfield to get the ball to wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry and tight ends Austin Hooper and David Njoku.
The team’s defense has building blocks like defensive end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward, and the potential to be well above average.
Everything looks great on paper. Of course, everything looked great on paper last season.
Key move: Drafting quarterback Joe Burrow.
Outlook: Running back Joe Mixon is a terrific player, but if Coach Zac Taylor is going to open up the Bengals (2-14) offense, it will have to happen through a passing game led by the No. 1 overall draft pick. Burrow has all the tools he’ll need in the veteran wide receiver A.J. Green and the rookie Tee Higgins, and if the ball starts flying downfield, the thought of Mixon being able to run without a stacked box in front of him will be fairly terrifying to opponents.
Patience is still key. The team’s talent deficiencies were a big reason for its N.F.L.-worst record last season, and even after a free agent spending spree, plus a well-regarded draft, this team should be viewed very much as a work in progress.
A.F.C. South: Three Good Teams and Jacksonville
Key move: Signing defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Outlook: There were two distinct chapters last season for the Titans (9-7): before Ryan Tannehill and after. While many attributed the veteran quarterback’s success to the dominance of running back Derrick Henry, their relationship was far more symbiotic than it got credit for. Tannehill’s efficiency and ability to aggressively throw downfield unlocked Henry’s enormous potential.
The key players are back on offense, with Tannehill receiving far more money in the hope that he will provide something close to the same results, and Henry trying not to fall prey to the curse of rushing leaders, who often decline the next season.
Tennessee’s defense, however, will look a lot different. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, cornerback Logan Ryan and linebacker Wesley Woodyard are all gone. The unit, with some development from second-year tackle Jeffrey Simmons, may not collapse entirely, especially after signing Clowney to a one-year deal. But the Titans took quite a risk in shaking up their defense so much to help pay for their offense.
Key move: Trading for running back David Johnson*.
Outlook: The key move for the Texans (10-6) gets an asterisk because, while Johnson is a very talented young running back who should be a versatile option for quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Texans gave up wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the trade. Hopkins is in the conversation about the best wide receiver in the game, and his steady presence gave the team the luxury of not relying on other receivers like Will Fuller and Kenny Stills to have consistent success.
Watson is so good it seems that he can make anything work, and he and Johnson could be a devastating combination. But it’s hard to get enthusiastic about a team that has a suspect defense and that traded away a franchise icon. Especially so when it faces a brutal start to the season, with the first six weeks including games against Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Tennessee.
Key move: Traded for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.
Outlook: How much does quarterback Philip Rivers, 38, have left in the tank? The Colts (7-9) are about to find out. The veteran passer was all over the place last season for the Chargers, but the Colts appear determined to have their offense controlled by running backs Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor (or, more realistically, by left guard Quenton Nelson). That creates a dream scenario for Rivers in which all the team truly wants from him is leadership, the occasional deep floater to T.Y. Hilton or Parris Campbell, and some creative plays underneath to the third-down back, Nyheim Hines. Rivers seemingly could manage that into his 50s.
Adding Buckner, fresh off a Super Bowl appearance with the 49ers, gives the superstar linebacker Darius Leonard much-needed help and could be a boon to linebacker Justin Houston, as Buckner tends to punch awfully big holes in offensive lines.
Key move: Cleaning up their salary cap sheet for 2021 or 2022.
Outlook: Gardner Minshew is a lovable scamp who is probably a better quarterback than Nick Foles at this point in their careers. Does that make the Jaguars (6-10) good? Nope. The subtraction of running back Leonard Fournette doesn’t make the team any worse — which is a fairly strong indictment of Fournette — and wide receiver D.J. Chark has promise, so the Jaguars will score some points and win some games. Not many, though.
Sadder is the dismantling of the team’s defense. The Jaguars’ remarkable 2017 season may have been something of a fluke, but it’s hard to say because just about every significant player from that defense has been sent elsewhere, often under rushed and dramatic circumstances. The most recent departures were Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell, but the team has also lost Marcell Dareus, Jalen Ramsey and Dante Fowler in recent years, and no team could endure that type of exodus.
A.F.C. West: Property of Patrick Lavon Mahomes II
Kansas City Chiefs
Key move: Giving Mahomes half a billion dollars.
Outlook: Mahomes has already won the N.F.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award, a Super Bowl and the Super Bowl M.V.P. award. Now he is theoretically secured as the face of the franchise for more than a decade. It’s good to be the Chiefs (12-4).
To help Mahomes thrive, Kansas City gave tight end Travis Kelce a huge contract extension and made what appeared to be a questionable decision by drafting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round, only to have that move look brilliant when the incumbent starter, Damien Williams, opted out for the season. Wide receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson will all probably spend a lot of time in the end zone.
The team’s defense has taken its lumps, but it showed up when it counted most in the Super Bowl, and with Chris Jones back to anchor the defensive line, and safety Tyrann Mathieu roaming in the secondary, there should be little fear of a drop-off.
Las Vegas Raiders
Key move: Drafting wide receiver Henry Ruggs III.
Outlook: It has been a rough re-entry to the N.F.L. for Coach Jon Gruden, but he and General Manager Mike Mayock appear to be building a team that shouldn’t be a pushover in its first season in the desert.
Having bolstered one of the best offensive lines in football for several seasons, the Raiders (7-9) now have the skill players to make use of all that time that line provides. Running back Josh Jacobs is wildly explosive, and quarterback Derek Carr has some terrific targets in tight ends Darren Waller and Jason Witten, and wide receivers Henry Ruggs III and Zay Jones.
The Raiders’ defense may not have a lot of household names, but it has strong players at each level, with the potential for a breakout year from defensive end Maxx Crosby.
Los Angeles Chargers
Key move: Keeping quarterback Tyrod Taylor around to give Justin Herbert time.
Outlook: There’s not much that’s recognizable for fans of a team that said goodbye to a potential Hall of Famer quarterback (Philip Rivers) and a former Pro Bowl running back (Melvin Gordon), while losing one of its best defensive players, safety Derwin James, to a severe knee injury. But then, there aren’t many people who would ID themselves as followers at this point. For the few who do, here are inklings of optimism for the Chargers (5-11).
Los Angeles used the No. 6 draft pick on quarterback Justin Herbert, and while he’s probably not ready yet, the team bought itself plenty of time by retaining Taylor, who should have had a starting job in the first place. Along with the versatile running back Austin Ekeler and wide receiver Mike Williams, the offense has the potential to be far better than last year’s.
The Chargers had a top-10 defense in each of the last two seasons, and even without James they could very well make it three straight years.
Key move: Trading for defensive tackle Jurrell Casey.
Outlook: The Broncos (7-9) appear to have settled on Drew Lock at quarterback, and they have worked to build around him with a new offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, and a fairly robust group of skill players — running backs Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon, wide receivers Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy, and tight end Noah Fant. If the team can patch together a decent offensive line, there will be little excuse for Lock not to succeed, and that might take some pressure off John Elway, the team’s president, who has made some questionable quarterback decisions in recent years.
The team’s defense is not what it was a few years ago, but Von Miller is still Von Miller, even after his struggles with the coronavirus; stealing Casey from the Titans should pay large dividends; and the acquisition of cornerback A.J. Bouye helps blunt the loss of Chris Harris Jr.
N.F.C. East: Where 9-7 Is Enough
Key move: Hiring Coach Mike McCarthy.
Outlook: If it felt as though the Cowboys (8-8) consistently underperformed under Jason Garrett, it was because they did. No team with quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, all protected by a top-notch offensive line, should ever finish 8-8. But that’s exactly what they did, giving away what should have been the easiest division title in N.F.C. East history.
In steps McCarthy, who may have worn out his welcome in Green Bay, but is a safe bet to get a lot more out of this talented offense. He retained Kellen Moore, last year’s supposed wunderkind of an offensive coordinator, and brought in Mike Nolan to revamp a defense that has enough talent to get by.
Cooper has said he believes the offense, with the addition of the rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, could become the rare unit with three 1,000-yard receivers. Focusing on winning nine games might be a better plan.
Key move: Trading for cornerback Darius Slay.
Outlook: The Eagles (9-7) have had a wild ride the last few seasons, winning a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback, falling apart entirely the next season, and then turning into a team that somehow felt like a plucky upstart last season despite having a franchise quarterback and a top-10 defense.
On offense, the key is health. Keeping quarterback Carson Wentz on his feet may be a bit easier with the veteran tackle Jason Peters moving to guard to make way for Andre Dillard. And Miles Sanders seems like a solution to the team’s revolving door at running back.
On defense, Philadelphia dropped a ton of money on defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who will team with Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson on a ridiculously deep defensive line. With that group forcing quarterbacks into countless unwise throws, the newly acquired Slay may find himself looking like a defensive player of the year candidate.
Washington Football Team
Key move: Retiring an offensive nickname and logo.
Outlook: Sorting out the off-season drama for Washington (3-13) would take far more space than is available here, but rest assured: It’s been messy.
Talking about strictly about on-the-field matters, however, the team should have an upward trajectory, with the caveat that it’s easy to move up when you’re at the absolute bottom. Coach Ron Rivera has proved he can succeed in the N.F.L., but for now his emphasis needs to be on building a new culture.
The quarterback position should be fairly interesting, as second-year starter Dwayne Haskins has some ability and also some troubles staying healthy. The improbable return of Alex Smith from a horrific leg injury is worthy of Hollywood consideration, but the chances that he unseats Haskins, absent an injury to the younger player, are remote. At least there are people to choose from. At running back, the release of both Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson has left the cupboard almost entirely bare.
The defense, now led by Jack Del Rio, will get a big boost from the rookie defensive end Chase Young. But this team is several good players away from relevance.
Key move: Presumably remembering what they have in Saquon Barkley.
To fix an offense that seemed to make very little use its ultra-talented running back, or of the promising tight end Evan Engram, the Giants tapped New England’s wide receivers coach, Joe Judge, as head coach and brought in Jason Garrett as offensive coordinator. Both managed to engender quite a bit of enthusiasm despite having come from jobs where the units they managed dramatically underwhelmed.
The offense could show some serious improvement, but the team’s defense is so bad that it won’t matter.
N.F.C. North: The Packers and Friends
Green Bay Packers
Outlook: You can’t exactly fake a 13-3 record, but the Packers certainly never felt like a top contender last season. Coach Matt LaFleur was supposedly brought in to unlock the remaining potential in Rodgers’s golden arm, but instead LaFleur seemed to fall in love with running the ball, leaving Rodgers with statistics fairly similar to those from the 2018 season, which got Coach Mike McCarthy fired.
In all, Green Bay was a fairly middling team in all facets of the game, but finished tied for the second best record in the N.F.L. thanks to a soft schedule and some luck.
With Rodgers healthy, somewhere between 10 and 13 wins feels like a given, but if the Packers want to avoid having things fall apart entirely whenever he departs (think Troy Aikman or Steve Young) they need to start thinking about what comes after. Drafting a potential star in Love was the right call, even if it worsened an already bad relationship between Rodgers and the team. Maybe Rodgers, who tends to thrive while playing with a chip on his shoulder, can really stick it to his bosses by throwing 35 touchdown passes this season.
Key move: The team kept a few of its good players.
Outlook: Wide receiver Stefon Diggs is gone. So are Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, all defensive stalwarts for the Vikings (10-6). Michael Pierce, who was brought in to replace Joseph, opted out of this season. Plenty of teams go through periods of turnover, but a playoff team jettisoning a solid portion of the players anyone has heard of is a little extreme.
Coach Mike Zimmer probably deserves some leeway with all of the defensive movement, since he has consistently put a strong product on the field. And embracing a youth movement is probably better than standing pat just for continuity’s sake.
On offense, however, it’s hard to justify the team letting things go so wrong with Diggs, who was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in franchise history. A team and player souring on each other happens, but breaking up the pairing of Diggs and Adam Thielen makes Minnesota’s offense worse.
Key move: Signing linebacker Jamie Collins.
Outlook: Things have not been pretty over the last two seasons for Coach Matt Patricia, but at least in Collins he has someone with whom he can chat about happier days in New England.
Should quarterback Matthew Stafford get back to his typically stellar health, he will throw for a lot of yards. They sometimes feel like empty calories, but there will be a lot of them. If history is any indication, the Lions (3-12-1) will have a hard time deciding on a primary running back between Kerryon Johnson and the rookie D’Andre Swift, but if they can ever find some balance for their offense it might help things considerably.
On defense, the guys you’ve heard of (Darius Slay, Snacks Harrison, etc.) are gone, replaced by Collins and a few other acquisitions who might be a better fit for Patricia’s scheme.
It wouldn’t be ridiculous to suggest the team could improve, but the Lions are a hard team to believe in.
Key move: Trading for quarterback Nick Foles.
Outlook: Hoping that the veteran backup quarterback who once stepped in for an injured No. 2 draft pick and won a Super Bowl could do the same thing for your team had big “buying a lottery ticket at the same store that sold a recent jackpot” energy. But Nick Foles, as flawed as he can be, seemed like an upgrade over Mitchell Trubisky, and the Bears (8-8), led by their terrific defense, didn’t need greatness from their quarterback. They needed competence.
Somehow, some way, Trubisky appears to have beaten out Foles for the starting job. So the Bears will now pay more than $20 million for a backup, while keeping the same bad quarterback.
That defense, though, is still special. It was not nearly as opportunistic last season as it had been in recent years, but with stars like Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Eddie Jackson, the potential for explosiveness is there if the offense finds a way to manage its end of the bargain.
N.F.C. South: Assisted Living for Aging Quarterbacks
New Orleans Saints
Key move: Not having Drew Brees retire.
Outlook: Few teams can match the Saints’ (13-3) run over the last few regular seasons, and none can match their postseason heartbreak. At least last season’s wild-card round defeat against Minnesota was just a plain old overtime upset and didn’t come with the enhanced drama of their losses to the Vikings in the 2017 season’s playoffs and to the Rams in the following year’s playoffs.
The chance to get another season out of Brees at quarterback, though, is quite a gift. While Teddy Bridgewater did well as an injury fill-in, he’s gone now, and the team will have a year to figure out if Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill is their future. That the team has complemented wide receiver Michael Thomas with the veteran Emmanuel Sanders should make life easy for whoever is under center.
As for the team’s defense, there has been steady improvement over the last few years, and a top-10 showing this season is not out of the realm of possibility.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key move: There were several.
Outlook: To complement the N.F.L.’s best run defense, the Buccaneers (7-9) added a six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, a four-time All-Pro tight end and a 25-year-old running back who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in two of his first three seasons. Should we see red flags in the fact that the quarterback (Tom Brady) is 43, the tight end (Rob Gronkowski) was retired last season and the running back (Leonard Fournette) was released by the awful Jaguars? Well, that’s no fun!
Brady, to be clear, wasn’t very good last year. He was just a season removed from winning a Super Bowl and had previously seemed absolutely ageless, but the wheels came off and he looked his age. Will he throw 30 interceptions, as Jameis Winston did last season? No. Will he throw for 33 touchdowns, as Winston did? Probably not.
Brady has two of the best wide receivers in the game, and the parallel to Joe Montana — who got a new home in Kansas City at the end of his career — is there. And hey, everything is more fun when Gronk is around. But the range of possibilities for how this could turn out is wide.
Key move: Signing running back Todd Gurley.
Outlook: Quarterback Matt Ryan is a model of consistency, churning out 4,000 passing yards and 25-plus touchdowns just about every season regardless of who is around him. He goes into this season with potentially the most talented group of skill players he has ever had, as wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley should have plenty of help from tight end Hayden Hurst and running back Todd Gurley. Gurley’s health is obviously the biggest wild card for the Falcons (7-9), but if he can suit up for 12 or more games, Atlanta could be very dangerous on that side of the ball.
The team’s defense is not without talent, but it doesn’t have much of an identity, either. Considering the team’s offensive ability, turning the defense into the league’s 16th or 17th best unit would be enough for success.
Key move: Signing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Outlook: Firing Coach Ron Rivera felt premature, and giving up on quarterback Cam Newton was rough. But the Panthers (5-11) just might show some serious improvement with Bridgewater guiding an offense that has a do-everything star in Christian McCaffrey and a pair of legitimate wide receivers in D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. There is bust potential as well, with a lack of depth making any injury devastating, but a repeat of last season’s struggles seems unlikely.
The Carolina defense, on the other hand, was dealt a crushing blow with the early retirement of linebacker Luke Kuechly, the kind of player whose leadership and talent are impossible to replace.
N.F.C. West: The Best Division in Football
Key move: Trading for safety Jamal Adams.
Outlook: The margin between the Seahawks (11-5) and the 49ers last season was thinner than their records would suggest, and with a few breaks it would have been easy to envision Seattle reaching the Super Bowl. Now the Seahawks have added safety Jamal Adams, one of the most talented young defensive players in the N.F.L., and may give the N.F.C. West its third conference champion in three years.
On offense, quarterback Russell Wilson is the star of the show, at least when Coach Pete Carroll lets him have some fun. Wilson will get the ball to Tyler Lockett early and often, though D.K. Metcalf has the makings of a superstar. With the addition of tight end Greg Olsen and some serious depth at running back, in the form of Chris Carson and backup Carlos Hyde, Seattle has an offense that should terrify just about anyone.
On defense, the loss of end Jadeveon Clowney will be felt, but Adams is so good that he should make everyone around him seem better.
San Francisco 49ers
Key move: Trading for left tackle Trent Williams.
Outlook: If a third-down pass to Emmanuel Sanders had hit its mark in the fourth quarter, the 49ers (13-3) would probably have been Super Bowl champions. But quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s throw sailed a bit too long, and that gave Patrick Mahomes all the room he needed to seal a comeback victory.
Super Bowl hangovers are typical, and the 49ers may very well experience one early in the season thanks to injuries to key players like center Weston Richburg and wide receiver Deebo Samuel. But the team did an excellent job addressing the small amount of turnover it had, replacing defensive lineman DeForest Buckner with Javon Kinlaw, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders with Brandon Aiyuk and, most important, left tackle Joe Staley with the future Hall of Famer Trent Williams.
The team’s biggest strength was Nick Bosa and a fabulously deep defensive line, so Kinlaw’s needing some time to learn shouldn’t be an issue. And the team’s offense should be bolstered by Garoppolo’s being closer to full speed after a long recovery from an A.C.L. tear in 2018. With tight end George Kittle around, just about anything is possible.
Key move: Traded for wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Outlook: Kyler Murray may fit inside Jared Goff’s pocket, but Arizona’s teeny-tiny quarterback out of Oklahoma is a lot of fun to watch. He seemed to be just barely scratching at his potential in his rookie season for the Cardinals (5-10-1), and now can choose between Larry Fitzgerald and Hopkins on every play. Coach Kliff Kingsbury should have a lot of fun with that.
The Cardinals worked to address a depth issue on defense by focusing their draft on that side of the ball, and a full season of cornerback Patrick Peterson could go a long way toward getting the unit closer to respectable.
That may not be enough to challenge Seattle or San Francisco, but the Rams have to take a hard look at Arizona and wonder if all three teams in the division have surpassed them.
Los Angeles Rams
Key move: Drafting running back Cam Akers.
Outlook: Two years ago the Rams (9-7) were the toast of the N.F.L., celebrated as the league’s future. Every team wanted an offense just like theirs and a coach just as young and brash. Last year the Rams were 9-7 and missed the playoffs. This year they might be the worst team in their division. A book should probably be written about how quickly they were overtaken.
That isn’t to say that they will be all that bad. Quarterback Jared Goff isn’t as dynamic as the game’s top signal-callers, but he’s plenty productive. The team has some talented skill players on offense, and on defense Los Angeles still has two of the best in the game — tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
But while the Rams were standing pat and shedding expensive players, the 49ers and the Seahawks were rebuilding into powerhouses and the Cardinals were sneaking up as a legitimate challenger. If the Rams can’t rebound some this season, the blow to Coach Sean McVay’s reputation could be enormous.