We can only hope our predictions for the NFL playoffs in 2020, all the way through Super Bowl 54, turn out better than our preseason picks. The team we projected to win it all failed to make the postseason, but many of the other teams we liked going into the season are alive and well in the NFL playoff bracket.
One of the teams we predicted would reach the Super Bowl this season, Kansas City, is sitting pretty with a first-round bye in the AFC bracket. The Chiefs, though, have the second best odds to win the Super Bowl behind the top-seeded Ravens.
The NFC is even more of a jumbled, loaded mess, making predictions for that side of the bracket extra challenging. The 49ers and Saints, two of the top three seeds, enter the playoffs with the same odds to win the Super Bowl. And the Packers and Seahawks aren’t far behind.
Given what we’ve learned about all 12 NFL playoff teams over the course of the season, and considering how each stands with injuries, etc., as the postseason begins, here are Sporting News’ predictions for the NFL playoffs. NFL writers Vinnie Iyer, Bill Bender and Tadd Haislop weigh in:
NFL playoff picks, predictions 2020
What team playing on wild-card weekend is the biggest threat to win it all?
Iyer: Saints. They put in a dominant performance in Week 17 to show they are a complete team. Drew Brees is sizzling and Alvin Kamara is hot again. Michael Thomas is unstoppable. The defense holds up well against the run and has plenty of playmakers against the pass.
Bender: Saints. I’m temped to go with New England here, but New Orleans is playing better right now. The Saints have been close the last two years, and they have lost just two regular-season road games in the last two seasons. New Orleans is equipped to make yet another deep postseason run.
Haislop: Patriots. With all due respect to the Saints, who may or may not be the hottest team in the NFL entering the postseason, they have an absurdly difficult path to navigate in the NFC. New England does, too, of course, since it fell to the No. 3 seed and will have to play in Kansas City (and maybe in Baltimore) if it gets out of the wild-card round. But for all the chatter about the Patriots’ offensive struggles this season, they still finished seventh in the NFL in points per game. We simply refuse to count out Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Which of the four bye-week teams is most prime for an upset?
Iyer: Packers. They will play either the Saints, Seahawks or Eagles in the divisional round. The Saints are an extremely tough draw in Lambeau Field, with the same 13-3 record and a more prolific offense that won’t be fazed by the outdoors as much everyone wants to still think. The Seahawks have been a Packers nemesis in recent playoffs past. The Eagles were able to win a Thursday night game in Green Bay in Week 4. Aaron Rodgers will need to be Aaron Rodgers at his best to survive and advance against anyone.
Bender: Chiefs. A popular pick here will be the Packers (likely against the Saints in a toss-up game), so let’s shake it up. How many times have we seen this movie? The Patriots’ stock is at an all-time low, they don’t look good on offense, and controversy surrounds the team. Kansas City won six in a row to close the regular season. The Patriots are still good enough to make a run out of the wild-card round, and they will prove it when Bill Belichick outwits Andy Reid on the big stage yet again.
Haislop: Packers. This is all about their potential matchup with the Saints in the divisional round. Even though that game would be played in Green Bay, New Orleans is capable of winning a defensive struggle in harsh weather conditions. The Saints also have been the more consistent team this season, though their pass defense could be an issue against Aaron Rodgers.
Who’s your pick for playoff MVP?
Iyer: Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens. The regular-season NFL MVP hasn’t won a Super Bowl in 20 years. The last to do it was Kurt Warner for the Rams in Super Bowl 34 after the 1999 season. Jackson will be well rested and ready to run at full speed for the league’s best-ever rushing offense. The Chiefs were the only team in the playoffs who kind of, sort of slowed him and the offense down. Don’t bank on that happening a second time in Baltimore.
Bender: Drew Brees, QB, Saints. Brees will have to earn it. The Vikings, Packers and 49ers — the projected path the Saints would need to navigate — all allow fewer than 20 points per game. Brees threw 16 TDs and no interceptions in New Orleans’ last five games. He turns 41 on Jan. 15. Will that be the week he leads New Orleans back to the Super Bowl?
Haislop: Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens. If Jackson simply does in the playoffs what he did in the regular season — or something close — this will be an easy call. Baltimore will draw a worthy defensive challenge from Houston, Buffalo or Tennessee in the divisional round, but there’s no reason to believe any of those teams can stop the runaway regular-season MVP.
What under-the-radar player will become a star in the playoffs?
Iyer: Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, 49ers. He was mistakenly labeled a caretaker for a team with effective rushing offense and strong all-around defense early in the season. But as they have had more issues running and the defense has been hurt by injuries, they have pivoted to becoming more explosive in the passing game with Garoppolo locked into his two go-to guys, rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel and celestial tight end George Kittle. Jimmy G rated 102.0 this season and threw for 8.4 yards per attempt and now has a career record of 21-5. Go figure he still needs a big first playoff run to convince more that he already has arrived as a top-flight quarterback.
Bender: Marlon Humphrey, CB, Ravens. Earl Thomas gets the headlines, but Humphrey ranks second on the team in tackles (65), and he leads the team with 15 passes defended. In a postseason where the Ravens could see Deshaun Watson and either Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes, somebody has to make the big play in the secondary. We like Humphrey to be that guy.
Haislop: Za’Darius Smith, OLB, Packers. Nobody in Green Bay considers Smith an under-the-radar player, but the fact that he was snubbed from the Pro Bowl signals a lack of respect for one of the best defenders on the team. Smith will have chances to wreck the divisional playoff game, especially if the Packers draw the banged-up Eagles or Seahawks.
What offense do you trust the most?
Iyer: Chiefs. When it comes to trust, let’s go with the offense with the most recent promising playoff experience, and they get the slight edge over the Saints. The Ravens, 49ers and Packers are all new at this with their current offenses. Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Damien Williams under Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy works at a high level, with additional playmaking pop from rookie Mecole Hardman.
Bender: Ravens. Baltimore averaged 200 and 200 between the air and ground, and that kind of balance with the creativity Greg Roman has shown with Lamar Jackson is impossible to defend at times. The Ravens used Week 17 to start getting healthy, and as long as Mark Ingram and Mark Andrews are full go, this unit will be ready .
Haislop: Ravens. Simply put: If the Ravens are clicking, their offense is the most complete and unstoppable force in the NFL. Even when they’re not clicking, Lamar Jackson has proven he can improvise enough to produce points.
What defense do you trust the most?
Iyer: Ravens. This is why they are strong Super Bowl favorites. Let’s not let their offense get all the attention. They are great against the run, have an underrated edge pass rush, cover well at linebacker and are extremely deep and versatile in the secondary. They rally to the ball well together in Wink Martindale’s 3-4 scheme with plenty of savvy. These Ravens don’t have the marquee of the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed days, but in this era, they are strong enough to back a champion.
Bender: 49ers. I just love the defensive front that features Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and DeForest Buckner. All four have 6.5 sacks or more, and defensive line is a proven winner in the playoffs. Robert Saleh has this team playing at a high level, and that will be necessary against quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers.
Haislop: Bills. We would have gone with the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense from the regular season rather than the No. 2 scoring defense had the Patriots not gotten shredded by the lowly Dolphins in Week 17. Buffalo is stingy and stacked at all levels defensively. If the Bills get bounced from the playoffs, it won’t be because they gave up too many points.
Who’s your pick to win the AFC?
Iyer: Ravens. Jackson is headed to an epic showdown with Mahomes in the projected AFC championship game. But the defenses also will dictate much of what happens there. The Ravens, as previously discussed, get a little more trust on that side of the ball. The Chiefs are almost as complete as the Ravens, but the game is in Baltimore, a big tilt in the Ravens’ favor.
Bender: Ravens. Notice I picked the Patriots to beat the Chiefs. The matchup between Jackson and Patrick Mahomes would be even better, but I have a feeling Jackson will take the torch from Tom Brady in emphatic fashion in the AFC championship game. John Harbaugh has split his playoff meetings with New England, and all of those were in Foxboro. Baltimore will uses that home-field advantage to get back to the Super Bowl.
Haislop: Ravens. They’re simply too good. This isn’t to say the Chiefs or Patriots aren’t worthy contenders, because both are capable of knocking off the No. 1 seed; all it would require is an effective game plan to contain Lamar Jackson. Good luck with that, though.
Who’s your pick to win the NFC?
Iyer: 49ers. OK, this might seem boring to go chalk. But San Francisco has been the best team in the conference from wire to wire with a loaded resume. There are almost no issues offensively and they will restore many of their strengths defensively with the stakes raised. Also, no other team in the NFC has a Kittle. How can you see Kittle not playing in the Super Bowl at this point? He’s Kittle. He’s that good. He is the best tight end in the league. Stop selling Kelce. Or Ertz. It’s Kittle. And he’s on the 49ers. And he’s’ awesome. And we need him and Jimmy G doing their thing in Miami. And they will.
Bender: Saints. I like them to win big at home against the Vikings. If New Orleans can go on the road and beat Green Bay, then this team will feel invincible heading into the rematch with San Francisco, which likely will have to face Seattle again. After heart-breaking losses against the Vikings and Rams the last two seasons, the Saints will break through to the Super Bowl after another thriller with the Niners.
Haislop: 49ers. The first-round bye is crucial for them to be as healthy as possible against the Eagles, Seahawks or Vikings in the divisional round. San Francisco, though, has proven itself to be the most complete team in the conference even when shorthanded.
Who wins Super Bowl 54?
Iyer: Ravens. The best game of the year was the sleepy, rainy game between the Ravens and the 49ers in Week 13. It was a perfect blend of timely offense and defense and went down to the wire, with the Ravens winning the battle of attrition, 20-17, at the end, on a Justin Tucker field goal. The rematch of that game will be more like Super Bowl 47, when the Ravens outlasted the 49ers, 34-31. Let’s call it Ravens 27, 49ers 24 in an instant classic, shall we? Put John Harbaugh in the Hall of Fame already.
Bender: Saints. If you’re going to push New Orleans this far, you might as well take the final step. Sean Payton has learned from the heart-breaking losses of the past two seasons, and the offense keeps chugging along with the running game and Michael Thomas leading the way. The defense is good enough to win on the road. The Saints will win a thrilling shootout with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. This comes a few weeks after LSU wins the national championship. That leads to the greatest Mardi Gras ever in the Bayou.
Haislop: 49ers. With an athletic defense to challenge Lamar Jackson and a diverse offense to keep Baltimore’s defense guessing, San Francisco is uniquely equipped to handle the Ravens should these teams meet again in the Super Bowl. Such a matchup would have instant classic written all over it.