by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

AFC BEST BET... Are we really going to recommend the...New York Jets (6 ½)? Why not? It might surprise that the J-Men would actually have to regress from last season’s 7-9 mark to not clear the win number in 2020. Indeed, the Jets did win 7 a year ago, as HC Adam Gase saved a job that looked precarious at midseason by winning 6 of the last 8 in 2019. Included were wins in the last two, amid rumors of internal strife, one of those effectively knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs. Will there will be as much adversity to deal with this season? Likely not, especially if they avoid another 0-4 start, which coincided with Sam Darnold missing almost a month with mononucleosis. In the offseason, Gase set about rebuilding his offensive line via free agency, adding various versatile pieces to better protect Darnold, who has been under siege most of his first two years. Those moves should allow first-round pick OT Mekhi Becton from Louisville to be eased into the lineup. Meanwhile, second-round pick WR Denzel Mims from Baylor could prove an exciting addition to Darnold’s group of targets, while the ageless RB Frank Gore was enlisted in free agency to take some of the load off of Le’Veon Bell. Meanwhile, GM Joe Douglas also believes he has ample replacements for SS Jamal Adams, including Bradley McDougald, acquired from Seattle in the same deal that also landed the Jets a trove of draft picks down the road. The key to making a playoff run, however, remains Darnold, now working in the second year of the Gase system, with what seems an upgraded supporting cast. Even falling short of the postseason, the Jets can get “over” 6½. Besides, there will be no one in the stands to boo at MetLife Stadium this fall!

NEXT BEST BETS...Did the oddsmakers and wagering public see anything last season in the play of the Cleveland Browns (8½) to make them think Baker Mayfield & Co. are ready to make a run at the expanded playoff field and finish above .500? Only by falling again for the hype, which has once more distorted perceptions. Perhaps it’s because, for some reason, the sports media seems to think it important the Brownies contend, but we digress. New HC Kevin Stefanski might be an improvement from overmatched predecessor Freddie Kitchens, but he’s also the seventh coach in eight years for owner Jimmy Haslam, who has also been flipping GMs just as quickly in an administrative/coaching merry-go-round more reminiscent of Italian Serie A soccer than the NFL. Can Stefanski, in his first stab as a head coach, handle a locker room full of big personalities and force the likes of Mayfield, Odell Beckham, Jr., Myles Garrett, etc. to finally toe the line? The ballyhooed Cleveland drafts of recent years have in fact added only a handful of difference-makers; one of those, ex-Georgia RB Nick Chubb, finished behind only Derrick Henry in 2019 rushing stats. But the spectacularly overhyped Brownies also limped to 6-10 last year, and the AFC North isn’t getting any easier, with Big Ben back in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati looking like it might be on the ascent with Heisman QB Joe Burrow in the fold. No hesitation to look “under” by Lake Erie.

Are the Jacksonville Jaguars (4½) really in contact with Mark Cuban, who is passing along the “do’s and don’ts” of tanking? With the prize at the top of the first round of next April’s draft likely to be Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, Jags fans can dream, and might even cheer on a 3-13 type mark that could land the first pick. But after HC Doug Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell barely survived the same axe that fell on team prexy Tom Coughlin last December, we doubt either is plotting ways for the Jags to lose so mustachioed owner Shad Khan has an excuse to fire them both. Nor do the players help their security by underperforming; rather, this is the sort of situation where an embattled team often circles the wagons. Though outwardly it does seem to some as if J’ville wouldn’t mind losing to get a shot at Lawrence. To wit: rather than seek one of the available free-agent QBs, including Cam Newton, the Jags stood pat with 2nd-year Gardner Minshew. But don’t forget that Minshew performed with some moxie and flair as a rookie, forging a 6-6 record as the starter, before overcoming a COVID scare at the start of camp. Adding Jay Gruden as o.c. looks a good fit for Minshew, who could thrive in the schemed and rhythmic passing system that Gruden prefers, and we suspect that ridding the roster of the distraction that Leonard Fournette had become might be a good bit of business. Watch Colorado rookie WR Laviska Shenault, used in a variety of roles in college and a potential 2nd-round bargain. The defense has had something of a clear-out sale since the run to the AFC title game three years ago, and still has a handful of difference-makers affter after the weekend trade of DE Yannick Ngakuoe to the Vikings.  If the Dolphins could get to five wins in what appeared a similar “tank” situation last fall, the Jags can do at least as good, if not a bit better. “Over” at TIAA Bank Field, or what oldtimers like us still call the Gator Bowl.

When the smoke cleared last December, the Denver Broncos (7½) had clawed their way to a 7-9 record by winning four of their last five after the switch to Missouri rookie Drew Lock at QB. That convinced John Elway and Vic Fangio that they had finally found a proper fit in the cockpit for the first time since Peyton Manning hung ‘em up following 2015. After several misses in the draft (such as Paxton Lynch) free agency (remember Case Keenum?), and trades (think Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco) since Manning left, Elway, who hasn’t overseen a Denver playoff appearance since Super Bowl 50, might be playing his last hand, with a possible franchise owner shift in the near future. But if Lock is the guy, Denver might be building something exciting with a “Chiefs Lite” offense. The Broncos are suddenly heavy on speed at the skill positions, especially at WR where Elway took Bama’s Jerry Jeudy and Penn State’s K.J. Hamler with his first two picks to complement holdover Courtland Sutton and last year’s top draft pick, TE Noah Fant, while ex-Charger RB Melvin Gordon was added in free agency to platoon with Phillip Lindsay, off back-to-back 1000-yard seasons, in the backfield. Meanwhile, Fangio’s defense still features Von Miller and expects to have fellow OLB Bradley Chubb back at full strength, while Justin Simmons has emerged as one of the league’s best safeties. Maybe the Broncos aren’t ready for the Super Bowl, but they could make the expanded playoffs and land “over” that modest 7½ total.

OTHERS: Before writing off the New England Patriots (9½) because of Tom Brady’s departure, remember that Bill Belichick is still calling the shots, and the Pats won 12 last season without much help from the offense anyway. A healthy (knock on wood) Cam Newton intrigues as Brady’s successor, and before anointing the Bills as the new team to beat in the East, remember the Pats have lost the division just once since 2003. Underestimate Belichick at your own risk; “over” at Gillette Stadium... We’re not sure if the Houston Texans (7½) have been making the playoffs because of HC Bill O’Brien, or maybe in spite of him. Our thinking is more the latter after watching O’Brien almost deliberately cede momentum to the Chiefs in a Division Round playoff game last January, before authorizing what might be the move to break the camel’s back in Houston when trading away WR DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals. Deshaun Watson is always capable of pulling a rabbit out of his hat, but we’re thinking no playoffs for the Texans in 2020; look “under” at NRG Stadium.

NFC BEST BET...Down the stretch last December, the Atlanta Falcons (7½) could make an argument that they were the best team in the NFC. After all, they won at San Francisco (the same 49ers who destroyed the Vikings and Packers in the playoffs) in a stretch of 6 wins in their last 8 that saved the jobs of HC Dan Quinn and GM Tom Dimitroff, which looked about as likely as Clemson losing the ACC at the bye week when the Falcs were sitting on just one win. Rather than force Quinn to walk the plank, owner Arthur “The Thinker” Blank gave him one more chance, and Quinn responded with a thumping win at New Orleans to trigger the late rally. The Falcs finally started playing defense after the bye week, too, allowing just 18 ppg the last half of the season after conceding 31 ppg in the first half. Though now into his 13th season, QB Matt Ryan remains capable of posting big numbers, and it is hoped the addition of mysterious RB Todd Gurley from the Rams will toggle the infantry and make it a bit harder for opposing defenses to commit extra resources to contain big-play wideout Julio Jones, who can still distort the field. Atlanta most definitely can get to .500 and perhaps much better, so it’s an “over” for us at Mercedes Benz Stadium after we make a stop at the nearby Varsity for a slaw dog and an “F.O.” (Frosted Orange!).

NEXT BEST BETS: It remains important to the national media that the Dallas Cowboys (9½) do well, even though owner Jerry Jones often appears one step away from another controversy with the press. On the field, after Jones allowed HC Jason Garrett to use each of his nine cat lives before finally pulling the plug on the Princeton man after last season, the thought among some is that former Packers HC Mike McCarthy is ready to lead Dallas to the promised land, with riches of offensive skill weapons further augmented by Oklahoma rookie WR CeeDee Lamb, who with Zeke and Amari Cooper in the fold could flourish as opposing defenses can’t simply key on him as they did in the Big 12. We’re hesitant, however; remember that when last seen, McCarthy had turned Green Bay into a dumpster fire and Aaron Rodgers into an enemy two years ago before getting dismissed. And there are still questions re: QB Dak Prescott, working on a franchise tag this season while awaiting a extension that will match the GDP of more than a few countries, And one ‘ol Jer is justifiably reluctant to offer, given that Prescott’s sometimes-impressive stats are often hollow, and that he continues to fall short in big games, such as the penultimate week loss at Philadelphia last December that cost the Pokes the East and Garrett his job. We’re simply not as sure as Jones that this is the Super Bowl-quality roster he believes, and that McCarthy will make the difference; it’s an “under” for us in Arlington.

The “Super Bowl loser hangover” is a recurring phenomenon that most recently impacted the Rams, who couldn’t even make the playoffs in 2019 after reaching the “Supe” the previous season. Enter the San Francisco 49ers (10½), who could be excused for seeking help from Dr. Phil after living the last seven months in a post-Super Bowl meltdown funk. But Super Bowl losers have occasionally bounced back to win it all the next season (such as the Patriots two years ago), and after dominating the Vikings and Packers at home in the playoffs, the gap between Kyle Shanahan’s crew and the rest of the NFC was pretty wide the last time we checked. Some of the offseason departures (such as OT Joe Staley and DE DeForest Buckner, plus vet wideout Emmanuel Sanders) could leave leadership voids, but enough veteran presence remains on the roster to fill those roles. There are also fewer significant contract distractions with TE George Kittle recently inked to a long-term deal and key RB Raheem Mostert now apparently satisfied with his situation after running thru holes as wide as the toll plazas at the Bay Bridge late last season. Moreover, the raucous 49er defense showed it could make opposing offenses one-dimensional in the playoffs when effectively rendering impotent the capable Vikings (with Dalvin Cook) and Packers (with Aaron Jones) infantries, then teeing off on Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers, respectively. Even in the high-tech world of modern football, there is still room for the Niners’ old-school recipe of running the ball and voracious defense; it’s a combo worth another “over” in Santa Clara.

Thanks to a spate of injuries that included losing irreplaceable QB Matthew Stafford for much of the season, Detroit Lions (7) matriarch Martha Ford decided to give HC Matt Patricia a mulligan after the Lions sank to 3-12-1 in the injury-wracked Motor City stupor of 2019. Patricia, however, gets no more bailouts or help from ownership or Governor Whitmer if Detroit can’t win or make the expanded playoffs, even if Stafford should go down again after last year’s serious back problems. (New backup Chase Daniel is serviceable but not much more.) With Stafford the Lions can look to have a sharp edge, and there is hope that Georgia rookie RB D’Andre Swift can offer a new and improved infantry diversion. But unless a revamped offensive line coagulates quickly, Stafford remains at risk, and the pass rush could remain a major liability. Mrs. Ford has passed along daily franchise operations to her daughter, but if Sheila Ford Hamp is apt to swing her axe as indiscriminately as her mom, Patricia and GM Bob Quinn could be gone long before we get to Black Monday if the Lions flop again. Too many trip-wires in Detroit; look “under” at Ford Field.

OTHERS: This might qualify as a bit of a walk on the wild side, but we’re bullish on the Arizona Cardinals (7½) forging a breakthrough and making a run at one of the new and extra playoff berths. Though only 5-10-1 last year, there were plenty of silver linings in the desert clouds with hints that the great experiment of hiring HC Kliff Kingsbury to install a Kyler Murray-friendly offense might soon pay big dividends. The road was bumpy at times last fall, but the Big Red had a look at almost every game in a debilitating 6-game skid, played the 49ers to the hilt on both occasions, and won again at Seattle. As for Murray, he flashed real upside while breaking his NFL maiden, and now has DeAndre Hopkins in the fold from Houston, giving him three potential 1000-yard receivers along with ageless Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. Also watch Clemson defensive hybrid Isaiah Simmons, a steal of a first round pick at the 8th slot and capable of playing a variety of roles for Vance Joseph’s defense. We think Arizona at least gets to .500 and “over” in the process... There are so many oddities about 2020 that we’ve lost track. But as far as football goes, this was a bad year for a coach to begin and try to implement his new program and systems without a normal offseason. And this was indeed no normal offseason, which could hamper the Carolina Panthers (5½). New systems, especially on offense, couldn’t be honed as usual with no OTAs, normal camp scrimmages vs. other teams, or preseason games, which makes things even worse for a new QB in the fold such as Teddy Bridgewater in Charlotte. Though we applaud the hire of HC Matt Rhule from Baylor, he could have used a normal spring and summer and a regular preseason to work out some of the kinks, especially as he and his coordinators (Phil Snow and Joe Brady) were all either involved with the Big 12 or SEC last season...not the NFL. Even with Christian McCaffrey in the fold, Bridgewater has nowhere near the weapons he had in New Orleans when relieving Drew Brees for several weeks last autumn. Further, Tom Brady’s arrival in Tampa Bay and the chance the Falcons pick up where they left off when sizzling at the end of 2019, not to mention the Saints, makes the NFC South a very unforgiving neighborhood. Looks to us like it will be a rugged ride for the Panthers, so we suspect it’s an “under” in Charlotte.

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