As we near the home stretch of the 2020 NFL season, here are seven underrated matchups that could shape the postseason landscape.
1-2. Both matchups between the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams (Week 13 @ Arizona; Week 17 @ Los Angeles)
As of week 11, the Cardinals sit atop the wild NFC West division holding tiebreakers over both the 6-3 Seattle Seahawks and the 6-3 L.A. Rams. Arizona has a chance to sweep the season series against Seattle for the first time since 2009 on Thursday night, all the while narrowing the chase out west to both week 13 and week 17 matchups against the Rams. Seattle fell victim to the Rams in week 10, meaning quarterback Jared Goff and company have control of their own destiny vying for the western division crown.
The mood in Arizona could not be more ecstatic after the “Hail Murray” play for the ages that propelled the redbirds over the Buffalo Bills 32-30. For good reason, the theme of every NFL talk show this week has been centered around the greatness of second-year quarterback Kyler Murray and his all-world receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
If anything, the underrated aspect of this game comes from the perspective of the Rams. Sometimes no noise leads to good results, and the Rams have little noise surrounding their team despite some real impressive results. While I mentioned Jared Goff, the Rams’ game changers have been on the defensive side of the ball. Aaron Donald has been Aaron Donald, and that’s a really good thing. Jalen Ramsey held Seahawks star receiver DK Metcalf in check allowing just two catches for 28 yards, which is also a good thing. Speaking of, if you watched that Seattle-L.A. game on Sunday the one name being constantly brought up was Leonard Floyd. His numbers don’t lie: three sacks, two tackles for loss, a fumble recovery, and a NFC Defensive Player of the Week award for the 28-year old from Georgia. This defense has been balling, but so have Murray, Hopkins, and the Cards’ offense. We’re in for a treat twice down the stretch.
3. Tennessee Titans @ Indianapolis Colts (Week 12)
This game could determine the AFC South winner along with the playoff fates for both teams.
The first battle between these two divisional foes took place just last week in Nashville, with the Colts rolling to a 34-17 victory on “Thursday Night Football”. Say what you want about Colts quarterback Phillip Rivers, but his team has set themselves up to take hold of the AFC South over the next few weeks.
The Titans have had a stressful yet overall successful 6-3 season so far, showing themselves as a team that can battle with the best and play down to the worst. Besides their victory over the Bills, there really aren’t any quality wins on the Titans resume right now. Most of their games against subpar teams like Jacksonville and Houston have been close, and their week 9 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was not pretty. With all that being said, few teams have silenced the doubters over the past year quite like the Tennessee Titans. Most people might look at this division matchup as the Colts’ game to lose, but in my eyes any game involving the Titans should be looked at as a toss-up.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills (Week 14)
The Bills will appear on this list more than once, and for this game the stakes will likely be high no matter what. Calling a primetime scheduled game “underrated” might be a stretch, but the circumstances could make this one of if not the most important game of the regular season.
If the Steelers can secure a Thanksgiving night victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the odds would heavily suggest that they will go into this matchup with Buffalo a perfect 12-0. The last time we saw a team go that far into a regular season undefeated was in 2015, when the Panthers got to 14 wins before suffering their first loss against the Atlanta Falcons.
After their trip to Buffalo, Pittsburgh will face the Bengals in Cincinnati, return home to play the Colts (honorable mention game for this list), and cap off the potential perfect regular season run in Cleveland against the Browns. Indianapolis could absolutely give these Steelers a game, but the juice surrounding Pittsburgh would be insane if they could clear this week 14 hurdle against Buffalo remaining undefeated.
The Bills perspective could be just as intriguing. The aforementioned “Hail Murray” has all of a sudden drawn the AFC East race a lot closer. While Buffalo controls their own destiny, this game looms largest as a potential loss before the Bills play host to the Dolphins in week 17. Yet this is more than just the division at stake for the long suffering Western New York football fans. A win over the potential undefeated Steelers would undoubtedly be that next step up from “they’re pretty good” to “Super Bowl contenders”. Buffalo had a pretty legitimate shot to knock off the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs at home earlier this season, and now they might have an even bigger opportunity to take advantage of at New Era Field come week 14.
5. Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints (Week 16)
This one is pretty out there, but I feel good about what the Vikings are putting together right now. By week 16 we will obviously have a clearer picture of where these two teams are going, but my bold prediction (take it for what its worth) has both teams battling out for the NFC’s 7th seed at the end of the season.
Minnesota could actually help the Saints in week 14 when they head south to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In New Orleans’ case however, their immediate future rests on the arm of former Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. Hopefully Saints starter Drew Brees can recover from his multiple injuries by the time this game rolls around. For right now, New Orleans will have to keep pace in the south with their decent backup quarterback.
The Saints have two upcoming games against the Falcons, which almost always ends up in at least one loss even with Brees in the lineup. Regardless of whether or not Brees is back by the time the Saints play host to the Chiefs in the Superdome, that game could be their most difficult of the season. Realistically Saints fans would be fine with a 3-2 stretch over the next five games leading up to Minnesota. Still, even that scenario could set up another do-or-die game against the Vikings, which hasn’t gone well for the Big Easy faithful over the past few seasons.
Running back Dalvin Cook has been the crown jewel for fantasy football owners as well as the resurrection of this Vikings season. The next five weeks and beyond for this team hinge on how the 25-year old Cook can perform, there’s really no other explanation. If the Vikings can run the table all the way to week 16 (their biggest challenge being Tampa Bay) then we will most likely see the scenario of Vikings-Saints being a “winner gets in” type of game.
6. Baltimore Ravens @ Cleveland Browns (Week 14)
When these two teams met way back in week 1, there really was no contest. Baltimore powered their way to a 38-6 home victory over a Browns team seemingly going through the motions with new head coach Kevin Stefanski and company. It looked as though the Ravens were about to take off on another dominant regular season run while the Browns would trudge through another year of rebuilding.
Fast forward to mid-November, both teams have the same record sitting at 6-3.
While Baltimore might not be as scary of a team as once believed, most would agree they have an upper hand talent wise compared to the Browns on both sides of the football. That’s great and all, but one look at the AFC playoff picture should be a wake up call that 3 loss teams have little room for error at the moment. There are seven(!) 3 loss teams in the AFC alone, and two of them would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs started today (Tennessee, Cleveland).
This week 14 matchup could be huge just because of the playoff picture alone. The Browns haven’t made the postseason since 2002, while the Ravens have been touted as a sure lock for a third straight playoff appearance. Both teams had extremely different expectations after that week 1 showing and at the moment both are skating on thin ice in the playoff hunt. Regardless, the way these two teams run the ball, this game might end quicker than a rugby match.
7. Miami Dolphins @ Buffalo Bills (Week 17)
I’m crossing my fingers this will determine who wins the AFC East.
While New England’s 11-year division title run has been fascinating to watch (at least in my opinion), seeing one of these two franchises take the glory at the expense of the other would be must watch television. At the moment, we are still well over a month away from this potential scenario.
These teams met back in week 2 and at that point all of the focus was on Buffalo. Looking back, many of us were probably surprised to see Miami put up such a strong fight against the Bills in a 31-28 loss at Hard Rock Stadium. Those Dolphins were 0-2, the fans were calling for rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to replace Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the general feeling was the season was going to be forgettable record wise even if the young QB were to get his chance. Well, he got his chance at what seemed to be the wrong time, but it was actually the perfect time.
After Ryan Fitzpatrick dug Miami out of an 0-2 hole rising up to .500, Tagovailoa took the keys and has driven his team to a 3-0 record to start his career. His games against Arizona and the L.A. Chargers were spectacular, and now the Alabama phenom has Miami fans thinking more than just playoffs in 2020.
Could this first matchup between quarterbacks Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa be the last matchup of the NFL regular season? I doubt the actual game will live up to game 256 of last year, but I would still love to see it happen.