1st Half Summary of the NHL 2019-2020 Regular Season

Well this was certainly an entertaining first half of the season. As the NHL All-Star break rolls into St. Louis this upcoming weekend, all of us can to look back on the first half and predict what could be a stellar push for the playoffs. While there may not be a Cinderella story like we had last year with the Blues, there’s a lot to keep an eye on and what teams can improve or work on going forward into the offseason. First, let’s start with what we’ve seen in the first half.

  • Firing coaches mid-season will become the new trend

As if last year didn’t foreshadow, this year ramped up pressure on the coaches to perform heading into the All-Star break. We’ve had at least seven coaches fired, the most recent one being Gerard Gallant, where he had the rug pulled from under him and can’t coach the Pacific division in the All-Star game. Most of the coaches fired made the playoffs last year, and all of them made the playoffs two years ago. While we can debate on how three deserved their firings for issues away from the ice, the other 24 teams may use this as an excuse for years to come if they want to pull the plug early, just for a chance for a quick turn around and sneak into the playoffs.

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Latest coach casualty is Gerard Gallant who was the first coach in the Golden Knights’ existence.

The problem with this trend is coaching changes in the NHL happened too often with little value going forward last decade. This season and this decade accelerated the trend, which means everyone could be on the hot seat even if their team reaches the playoffs.

  • The Pacific Division is clearly the worst division in hockey, while the Central is probably the best.

The first part of that statement is accurate, because the point total is bunched together between five of the eight teams, which mostly are mediocre at best. The second part may cause fighting words with fans of an eastern conference team. To this I say one thing of both those divisions:

1). Half of the Atlantic division is pretty good, the other half is just as miserable in the standings, so there’s balance.

2). The top two teams in the metropolitan will solidify what power they have with little opposition in the second half.

The Central however could have five, possibly six teams reach the playoffs by the time the season ends. The Minnesota Wild, in last place with 50 points, have the possibility of keeping pace with the third place Dallas Stars, a team they crushed last Saturday night 7-0. While Nashville could be one of the few teams who may not make it, Chicago and Winnipeg have exceeded expectations, and we know St. Louis and Colorado won’t have a problem clinching early.

The divisional games within the Central are must-watch for hockey fans for the second half of the season.

  • The Devils are in the worst situation possible.

Going into the season, yours truly thought the New Jersey Devils would be in a pretty good situation to make one of the lower seeds in the playoffs because of who they added to their roster. Then, a lot of that roster amassed injuries not long after, and the team never recovered. This year, audiences can tell that the Devils are not competitive and are nowhere close to playoff contention. While the Ottawa Senators have had jokes made at their expense (and with good reason, but more on that later), they have looked better and are further ahead in their process than the Devils can say.

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PK Subban has sadly wasted another year in his career with a dead-as-a-doornail team that will have to go in full re-build.

The Devils did the right thing by firing their coach and GM before the end of the first half of the season. The Taylor Hall experiment proved to be one of the most lopsided deals of last decade, and after all of this, the team must tear everything down, brick by brick. This decade will be a long one New Jersey.

Brian Boucher is a wonderful addition to Doc and Edzo’s announcing crew

There have been valid complaints about Inside the Glass reporter Pierre McGuire on NBC for years, and it intensified last season after he made sexist comments and couldn’t stop injecting himself in play-by-play calls. NBC made the switch before last season ended to putting Brian Boucher by the ice with Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk in the booth. Not only has Brian added some polish and youth, the audiences seem relieved knowing it’s one less game without the afore-mentioned McGuire. Boucher adds fresh views about what it’s like being on the ice in the last 25 years, goalie play, coach and captain mentality and using his time wisely in other areas in ways the audience can comprehend. Viewers hope this trio lasts for the rest of the 20s.

31 Takes for the 31 Teams

Now for what each team can improve on or keep doing right in the second half of the season.

Anaheim: conflicted about this team. Gibson could wind up having his pretty years spent during this re-build. Trading for defense is a must at this point. Buffalo could help with that if the Ducks want to clear space and go for some trades.

Arizona: They’re the true division winners if Darcy Kuemper never got hurt. They need a solid backup behind Antti Raanta. Better yet, someone who has proven they can start and take the reins if Raanta gets hurt again.

Boston: Even when Rask got hurt, this team was starting to slip. Their loss Sunday in Pittsburgh has summed up what could be their season: a white hot start but fading fast and then an exit to a much more motivated team. They have to get that early season magic back and have better depth past the second line.

Buffalo: Because the Atlantic has four sensational teams, they can’t do what the Oilers have. Too many defensemen and not enough offense is their recipe for not making the playoffs.

Calgary: Strangely this team knows what improvements they’ve had to make and have executed. Racist and bully of a coach? Fire him. David Rittich slips in performance? Replace with a better coached Cam Talbot. Milan Lucic staying consistent? Current work in progress.

Carolina: Many people leered when yours truly said the Canes couldn’t have a run like last year. While they started off as the best team in the league, they’re now fifth in their division behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. Justin Williams could be a spark and they could turn it up in the second half, but the signs are there this could be rough.

Chicago: The open secret is that Robin Lehner is the clear starter if you live in Chicago. The team defense has shown much improvement with him not just in net but with the culture of the players. Still, it would be bad to let either Lehner or Crawford walk after this year considering how few consistent goalies there are in the NHL. However, it is widely thought that Jeremy Colliton is not the coach this club needs, even if he is someone Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman is comfortable with. Colliton couldn’t pull an injured Robin Lehner during a high-scoring 7-5 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on January second. It’s a bad look.

Colorado: last year yours truly wrote a wonderful piece on why the Avalanche are the real deal. They need to stay healthy and Jared Bednar is a top candidate for coach of the year.

Columbus: so is John Tortorella if we have to be fair. Didn’t think goalie play was going to be a strength this year since Bobrovsky took off for Florida. This will be one of two teams (the other being Minnesota) that will be interesting to watch if they can keep up the pace they ended the first half with.

Dallas: a shame Jim Montgomery had to be fired. This team needed the rest after beating Colorado, because they gave up eleven goals in two games to teams that might not make the playoffs. All but two had Ben Bishop in net. Could be disturbing if they enter the second half still playing like that.

Detroit: There’s a really good take on what the Wings can do that would be great….just not this woeful season. Finish this agonizing year, cut the guys loose who are 28 and above (minus Jonathan Bernier), and keep re-building.

Edmonton: There was an article that was never published nor written on this site involving how the Oilers are playoff contenders with coach Dave Tippett at the helm. Regrettably not typed up, the article said most of the things that has happened this season. Tippett has come in, taken what he has and turned it into something opponents are almost scared to face night in and night out. The Oilers should feel good about him being their coach and add depth in after the season.

Florida: this year’s Sergei Bobrovsky is last year’s James Reimer. Keep an eye on Coach Q recruiting Corey Crawford to the Sunshine State if this keeps up.

Los Angeles: it is a shame Jonathan Quick’s body has deteriorated faster than expected. Although the talent on the ice with him isn’t much better. This re-build needs to speed up. Now.

Minnesota: as mentioned with Columbus earlier, this team was scorching as the first half of the season ended. What’s peculiar about both teams is how we as a collective audience assumed the goal-tending would sink them. For this team, that’s still in play. Devan Dubnyk has thrown the towel in on any remaining talent, but if Alex Stalock can keep improving, maybe there’s something. Don’t bet too much on it though.

Montreal: stop infuriating the public by being good and then bad every two weeks.

Nashville: Like Boston and San Jose, this team has to play well to get to the playoffs with the talent they have. The way their goaltenders play though is not encouraging. The Wild and Preds will be on the hunt this offseason.

New Jersey: The main take is above, but this club should play Louis Domingue for the rest of the season to see what they have to work with. There’s a clear need for a starter, but a quality backup would give them a boost.

NY Islanders: this team got worse in the offseason and it’s shown throughout January. Take the eight goal slaughter against Detroit out and this team has scored four goals in three games, two of which were against teams that probably won’t make the playoffs. The other in a 6-4 loss to the Capitals. This team needs better offensive performances if they want to make a run.

NY Rangers: the Rangers have to decide what they want to do with their goalies. Reports were Alexandar Georgiev was going to be shopped, so if they decide to do that, they better request a massive haul. Nashville could be just the team.

Ottawa: DJ Smith has his club buying in, and the Senators, rather than doing nothing before the trade deadline, seem to have bargaining chips for some teams in need. Popular talk is Craig Anderson, who is sure to leave with the rise of Marcus Hogberg playing a factor, could be traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Strangely, this could be something that benefits both teams, as Toronto has a lot of offensive pieces to spare, and they desperately need a backup netminder.

Philadelphia: there’s still a good chance they can make the playoffs, but they have to play better in games against playoff caliber teams. It’ll be interesting to see how Carter Hart can bounce back when he returns from his injury.

Pittsburgh: There go any Evgeni Malkin trade rumors. Mike Sullivan too should be up for coach of the year. For the battle in net, Matt Murray has to want the job back to keep it, though it’s possible the play of Tristan Jarry’s made that a little too late.

San Jose: the easy answer is to say get someone in goal who is not Aaron Dell or Martin Jones, but maybe you have to just re-build. While the Pacific is trash this year, the defense was a growing problem last year, and now it can’t be ignored.

St. Louis: while most expected the injuries to Vladimir Tarasenko and Colton Parayko would be huge, this team needed rest more than anything. The two losses to the Avs could sting going forward though.

Tampa Bay: Andrei Vasilevskiy basically told the press last week, “I play better and am more focused when I face more shots. I don’t zone out as much”, and it’s good he did because that may have been a factor in some of Lightning’s critical losses in the past year. The pace they’ve been playing at not only makes them the favorites to win their division, but also sharper heading into the postseason, knowing that’s where the adversity is.

Toronto: Craig Anderson will be available. Having an Anderson every night in net should bring consistency.

Vancouver: Jakob Markstrom is putting together a fantastic season, and this team deserves a lot of credit for coming as far as they have with not a lot of depth to use. Thankfully for them their division is terrible, so the depth part may not matter until the offseason.

Vegas: Yours truly will take a gamble and break with the public on this issue and side with general manager Kelly McCrimmon on not just firing Gerard Gallant, but hiring rival coach Peter DeBoer. McCrimmon was right about at least one thing: the Knights weren’t playing with the passion they had even last year when Mark Stone was acquired. If hiring the coach of the team you loathe gets the team going, then yeah, it’s worth it. DeBoer needs to know what defense is though.

Washington: the Braden Holtby question won’t stop despite their wins. He has allowed an average of just over three goals a game. While that may be overlooked because of the Capitals’ offense, Ilya Samsonov’s average is one full goal less. Keep in mind Holtby is a free agent and it’s looking more likely he won’t return if he continues this play.

Winnipeg: As yours truly predicted at the beginning of the season, they wouldn’t qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. That remains probable looking at how they have minimal defense and how awful their back-up goaltender Laurent Brossoit is. If Connor Hellebuyck caves in, this team is done.

2019-2020 AFC Divisional Weekend Playoff Predictions

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Last Saturday’s AFC wildcard match-ups were really fun and worth the watch! The Houston Texans’ second half surge was epic and deserved overtime. The Titans went punch for punch with the Patriots, frustrating Bill Belichick. One wonders what would’ve happened if Tom Brady didn’t throw that interception at the one yard line, as that sealed the deal for the Titans (hmm, where have we heard this before?).

This week looks even better, so without further ado, here are my AFC Divisional round picks.

#6 Tennessee Titans v. #1 Baltimore Ravens

This game just feels like an upset waiting to happen. The Titans were in the top five against the run, and while they didn’t play the Ravens this season, Mike Vrabel and his coaching staff are probably still bitter about last year’s shutout to Baltimore at home. Ryan Tannehill is not inconsistent like Marcus Mariota. Baltimore’s pass rush is different especially with Terrell Suggs gone. Tennessee’s offense should not disappoint this week.

Many people will look past this, but a quarterback like Lamar Jackson hasn’t gone far in the playoffs for a very long time. Don’t misunderstand, he will win the Most Valuable Player award for this season, and will continually prove people wrong for passing over him and his skills. Unfortunately, he proved last year in the playoffs that compared to another veteran quarterback, that he can struggle, especially if the other team stays one step ahead. Tennessee was built to get physical, run the ball and gut out games, and in the playoffs, this is what gets teams to the championship final.

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Mike Vrabel’s probably the best head coach to come from the Bill Belichick tree, and he’s proving it week by week.

JD’s Upset Pick of the Week: Tennessee wins 24-16

#4 Houston Texans v. #2 Kansas City Chiefs

The first matchup between these two teams was exhilarating and gave us a boat-load of unexpected results. DeShaun Watson proved he can come up clutch and win big games on the road early in the regular season. Yes, Patrick Mahomes can do the same, and showed us how, but a lot of people knew when these two were drafted, it’s Watson who stands out and plays the best when pressure arises.

Kansas City’s defense has yet to play a quality offense in over a month and a half. They have shown improvement, but after having a bye week, Houston’s offense is the right test for Steve Spagnuolo’s crew. A key note here: these are basically the rosters that played in week six. This game could probably be closer than the last game; again coming down to the last possession.

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Chiefs Defensive Coordinator has to be glad his players have played better, but it’s possible they break against Houston again Sunday

JD’s Pick: Houston wins 27-24

JD’s Picks from Wildcard Weekend: 3-1

2019-2020 NFC Divisional Weekend Playoff Predictions

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Last Sunday’s wildcard games shocked football fans around the country. Who would have thought that Carson Wentz would get injured in the first quarter? How many thought Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota offense would’ve not just performed better against New Orleans, but play their finest game of the season? How about Seattle winning by the same score against Philadelphia as they did in the regular season? Did you know the Saints are the first 13 win team eliminated from the playoffs on wildcard weekend history?

Both road teams Sunday will face their next challenges by playing the top two seeds in their conferences. Most analysts, including yours truly, didn’t give Minnesota a chance to win in New Orleans, and yet they have the daunting task of knocking off the 49ers in Santa Clara to open the divisional round of the playoffs. Which road team has a good shot to advance to the conference championship round?

#6 Minnesota Vikings v. #1 San Francisco 49ers

What’s still impressive about Minnesota’s win isn’t just how the offense showed up and did their job, but how the defense set the tone and dominated against the Saints’ front five. Coach Mike Zimmer did everything right, and the confidence level of the team will be felt for the start of this game. Running the ball consistently with Dalvin Cook, Mike Boone, Alexander Mattison & Ameer Abdullah can expose and possibly gut the 49ers interior if they have the chance.

There aren’t too many six seeds that match up well and have a good chance to take down a one seed, and this matchup is no different. The 49ers are the most complete team outside of their division, and they pummeled the NFC North winner Green Bay Packers on Sunday night months ago. The biggest issue the Vikings will have to face is the return of three 49er starters on defense who have been out for an average of a month and a half. Dee Ford, Jaquiski Tartt and Kwon Alexander are the boosts San Francisco needs to put away away their opponent and advance to the Championship game. Expect all three to look a bit rusty, but to pick up the pace around the second quarter and take control in the second half.

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Jaquiski Tartt (29) returning to play safety after an extra week off to recover is the boost San Francisco needs to advance to the next round

JD’s Pick: San Francisco wins 27-17

#5 Seattle Seahawks v. #2 Green Bay Packers

This matchup seems to be the polar opposite of the Minnesota-San Francisco matchup. While again we see an NFC West v. an NFC North showdown, there isn’t really a clear-cut winner. It’s been almost two decades since Seattle has won in Green Bay, but the Packers have struggled to win at home in the playoffs during that span. Russell Wilson has struggled against Green Bay throughout his career, especially in Lambeau Field. Aaron Rodgers has shown regression at a pace many didn’t expect. How do we find a winner here?

Green Bay ranks 23rd against the run defensively and offensively has looked mediocre at best. Running back Aaron Jones seems to be the most dangerous player for the Packers, and the Seahawks have proven to stop the run against their opponents. While Marshawn Lynch may not be the main back unless it’s near the endzone, Travis Homer has proven he can be a great first option. It’s possible that Duane Brown can return for this game. The left side of the offensive line played well against a great front for Philadelphia last Sunday, and anything that can help the interior bodes well for Russell Wilson and his timing.

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If Aaron Rodgers (12) can have a vintage performance this Sunday against Seattle, then the Packers have a great chance of moving on to the Championship round

Seattle’s receiving corp is another advantage. Davante Adams is the big target for Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Graham can handle some of the load, but outside of those two names, it’s a question of who may step up. Seattle won’t have to worry about a battered receiving corp. They can just disrupt past the line of scrimmage. On the flip side, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf will create problems against a mid-league defense regarding the pass. Jacob Hollister and David Moore are trusted to make clutch plays when neither Lockett or Metcalf have been open.

JD’s Prediction: Seattle wins 24-20

JD’s Postseason Picks so far: 3-1

2019-2020 NFC Wildcard Weekend Playoff Picks

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Unlike the AFC, the NFC’s playoff teams were locked into the playoffs after Week 16. Seeding however wasn’t determined until San Francisco escaped with a win in Seattle in the final seconds of Week 17. Both San Francisco and Green Bay will have the first round off as they get to recover some depth and have much needed rest. Without further delay, here are the predictions for these upcoming NFC wildcard weekend games.

#6 Minnesota Vikings v. #3 New Orleans Saints

There is truly no more lopsided matchup than this one. Kirk Cousins, who has struggled most of his career against teams with winning records will have to be close to perfect if the Vikings are to beat New Orleans in the Superdome. Minnesota’s defense has been suspect for a good part of the season, especially in the secondary with Xavier Rhodes having poor performances in must-win games.

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Dalvin Cook returning for Minnesota’s playoff game on Sunday will be a boost for the offense, but Kirk Cousins must push the offense forward if they are to win in New Orleans.

If this wasn’t enough, Drew Brees and New Orleans’ offense has stepped up the second half of the season and has looked like their old selves. There are valid concerns with the receiver talent and depth, however it appears as if Drew Brees has figured part of that out by developing better chemistry with tight end Josh Hill and receiver Tre’Quan Smith. Coach Sean Payton has also found better ways to use Taysom Hill when it matters most.

On the flip side, New Orleans’ defense has stayed stout, showing why they’re in the top five against the run and are in the upper half of teams that have given up the least amount of yards per game. The linebackers and the secondary will be key to keeping Cousins and company in check.

JD’s Pick: New Orleans wins 31-17

#5 Seattle Seahawks v. #4 Philadelphia Eagles

There aren’t too many disappointing teams in the playoffs, but these two are the big ones. Seattle gave up not just first place in the division, but the first overall seed twice in the second half of the season. Injuries have piled up on the offense, with three running backs and some of their best offensive linemen done for the year. The return of veterans Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin provide desperately needed running back presence, and flexible big man George Fant’s move to left tackle will also help, but the pass rush remains a concern.

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Russell Wilson was an MVP candidate for the first half of the season. While’s been hit or miss the second half of the season, he’s needed now more than ever.

The Philadelphia Eagles meanwhile, have the most major injuries heading into Sunday. The receiving corps has been battered throughout the season, meaning the tight-ends have stepped up. While Zach Ertz didn’t have physical contact in practice this week, he could possibly be a game-time decision since he’s cleared to play. Their offensive line has been banged up too, with starting tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters both injured for a good part of the season. Defensively their secondary has been hit-or-miss, while ranking third in the league against the rush. The Eagles need a strong start, propelled by the defense holding Seattle in order to get a win.

 

Both teams are battered, but one has been consistent. Seattle is 7-1 on the road, with a slugfest win against the Eagles after their bye week. The Seahawks saw more from the defense that they can exploit, especially since their receivers are getting better. The same can be said about Philadelphia, however with Ertz and Johnson’s injuries being a factor, this might have the same result.

JD’s Pick: Seattle wins 23-13

JD’s 2019 regular season picks record: 56-50

2019-2020 AFC Wildcard Weekend Playoff Picks

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What a wild finish the AFC playoff picture turned out to be. There weren’t many pundits who thought the Ravens could even win their division, let alone be the number one seed. Almost next to no one thought the Patriots would fall to the third seed after starting off 8-0. Then there’s the comeback of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who led the the Tennessee Titans to the playoffs and made the offense dangerous. Baltimore and Kansas City will have the week off to heal and watch their conference games. So without any further delay, here are the AFC wildcard weekend picks.

#5 Buffalo Bills v. #4 Houston Texans

Wow what a fun matchup this looks to be. Houston’s offense mirrors well with Buffalo’s defense, with Tre’Davious White v. DeAndre Hopkins as one of, if the not the featured highlight. A week off for DeShaun Watson will pay off, and the defense gets an added boost with J.J. Watt coming back from the injury report.

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DeShaun Watson (4) has put beatings on opposing defenses for most of the season, and a week off may make the Texans go further than most originally thought

Say whatever you want about both these teams (especially the Bills not appearing exciting on offense), the best part of this game will be the effort and determination of both teams. Sean McDermott is a great candidate for Coach of the Year, leading the Bills to ten wins in a season for the first time this century. Josh Allen has progressed behind his offensive line, looking more like the shot caller the Bills wanted him to be when they drafted him.

Both teams will have to face a strong running game from the other, though when it comes down to it, it’s who can throw down field and make the plays on the run with more creativity. This leans more towards DeShaun Watson as he proves to exceed, if not become a much different and dangerous player. If Watson takes control of this game early, Buffalo may be in trouble.

JD’s pick: Houston wins 27-23

#6 Tennessee Titans v. #3 New England Patriots.

Well, that was quite a surprise from New England for Week 17. Not only did they lose to a division rival that had nothing to play for, they lost out on a bye week they really needed. New England has to not just play one home game, but probably two road games if they win this saturday, making things harder on an offense that’s looked anemic for at least the last eight weeks. The Patriots have yet to take full advantage of Mohamed Sanu’s receiving skills. This could be the game he breaks out since Tennessee’s pass defense is ranked 24th in the league.

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As Tom Brady’s contract expires this offseason, many wonder if this will be his last postseason trip with the Patriots.

Tennessee on the other hand has turned the heat up on offense, and it hasn’t just been with Ryan Tannehill. Mike Vrabel’s offensive staff has finally figured out how to use rookie receiver A.J. Brown and to plug in Derrick Henry as the starting runningback. The results couldn’t have been better, as the Titans are number three in the league running the ball. The defense has been hit or miss this season, though there’s been consistency against the run (the defense ranks 12th in the league).

There are other non-statistical factors that give the Titans the edge. Mike Vrabel comes directly from the Bill Belichick coaching tree, and when the Titans played the Patriots in 2018 (with Marcus Mariota as the starting QB no less), they thumped them. Vrabel was able to take away multiple key pieces for Brady on a consistent basis and knock him around. While the result could be different, New England’s offensive line has struggled a good part of the season, which should give the Titan pass rush optimism.

JD’s Upset Pick of the Week: Tennessee wins 23-21

JD’s overall record the regular season: 56-50

NFL Regular Season Wrap-Up

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The 2019 regular season was full of fun and weekly surprises. Almost every team had a story new buzzing every month. Few teams were consistent week-by-week, but as the year and the decade closed, there are key takeaways to focus on for the playoffs and next season.

Older/veteran head coaches have bested younger ones.

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Bill Belichick (left) is still the Super Bowl reigning champion coach while John Harbaugh (right) boasts the team with the best record.

While Rams and Bears coaches Sean McVay and Matt Nagy enjoyed success last year, 2019 was a big let down for both them and their teams. It didn’t help that both teams’ GM’s may have doomed the future of their tenures by trading away draft capital and using a lot of cap space on questionable players, so these issues showed on numerous occasions, most notably opponents bound for the playoffs. New Bengals coach Zac Taylor struggled more than many expected, and the Bengals wound up being the worst team in the league. At the opposite end, coaches John Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, Andy Reid and Bill Belichick each enjoyed another ten win or better seasons. Harbaugh’s Ravens are the best team (record-wise) in the NFL and have the probable league MVP leading the way.

The running game mattered a lot this season

Yes, the position of running-back is dwindling, and yes, fullbacks have been out of fashion, but this season sparked the resurgence and a need for both. San Francisco for example uses Kyle Juszczyk frequently with the three RBs they have to gash defenses. Baltimore has a blocking tight-end behind Lamar Jackson at times to make sure Gus Edwards gets better blocking or for Jackson to turn it up a notch when he runs. In fact, Baltimore broke a 48 year record the 1978 Patriots held with the most rushing yards ever in a season. San Francisco of course, came in second.

These two teams aside, Carolina depends on Christian McCaffrey to be the focus for their offense. Aaron Jones is the most dependable Aaron for Green Bay going forward, and Minnesota has a three headed monster at running-back, even if one those (Dalvin Cook especially) goes down. New England, Kansas City, Tennessee and Philadelphia are getting into the playoffs thanks to their running games.

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Derrick Henry gashed Houston in Week 17 to a commanding win to clinch the last seed in the playoffs. Henry accumulated 1,540 rushing yards this season, averaging over five yards a carry.

If a team looks too good to be true, it’s probably because they are

Exhibit A: The Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns. So many people believed the Browns and Bears would not just win the divisions, but go deep in the playoffs, with both quarterbacks taking the big next steps. None of that happened. In fact, Cleveland regressed so much that general manager John Dorsey and the team have parted ways, this coming after Freddie Kitchens was fired hours after the teams’ Week 17 loss to the Bengals.

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The picture of the year for Cleveland. Everything that could have gone wrong, did.

We appreciate that Sports Illustrated looked at the Chicago Bears honestly and predicted the right amount of regression. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was a bigger loss than a lot of pundits thought, and Akiem Hicks going down twice with an elbow injury during the season showed how vulnerable their defensive front was. Throw in the issues (all of them, not just Mitchell Trubisky) on offense, and the team was lucky to finish 8-8.

As yours truly predicted at the beginning of the year, the NFC West still is the superior division in the NFL. 

The Los Angeles Rams came into the season as division and conference champions. How’d they do this year? Third place in the NFC West and eliminated from playoff contention the second to last week of the regular season. They went 1-3 against the two teams that finished above them, and will have to deal with salary cap issues for years to come, something Les Snead knew and still sold out for a championship, to which was never won. Seattle botched two chances to not just win the division, but the number one seed for the playoffs. While they squeaked out almost all their wins, coach Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson showed they can move the team past qualified opponents, especially San Francisco. Ratings for Seattle in prime-time were some of the most watched games of the season. People like watching these teams consistently compete and win in ways that feel unfathomable.

Speaking of San Francisco, yours truly had them in the playoffs, but only as the sixth seed. They exceeded many expectations, and if the defense can hold up in the playoffs, they can win a championship. The way they dealt with a three team scheduled stretch in which their opponents’ winning percentage was above .800, and came out 2-1 (with the one loss by three points) shows how this team is ready, and both GM John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan deserve the credit and awards. Though, if we get to see Seattle and San Francisco in the playoffs again, you can bet the ratings will be high and the game will be fun.

Jason Myers celebrates his game-winning field goal in overtime.
Seahawks kicker Jason Myers (5) celebrates after making the game winning field goal in Santa Clara, CA. The Seahawks delivered the 49ers their first loss of the season on Monday Night Football, the first of their two divisional games.