Friday, September 11, 2020

2020-21 Premier League Predictions

Two prediction pieces in three days? Must mean the writer is getting lazy and wants to shill for content. That's definitely true, but it's a strange 2020 coincidence that the Premier League and NFL seasons start so close to one another that two prediction pieces are needed. Perhaps this should wait until the transfer window closes in October, but these games still matter. So here are the sure-to-go-wrong as always predictions for the Premier League:

Standings predicted from worst to first.

20. Fulham

When Fulham was promoted a few years ago, they spent wildly and all that got them was three managers, 26 points and an immediate return to the Championship. After winning the promotion playoffs, they're back, with considerably more financial restraint and a squad that doesn't look nearly as enticing on paper. That might mean better for the balance sheet but not form the performance on the pitch. They won't be as bad defensively as they were two years ago, but they may also not be as good going forward either. Staying up is a success, and that success looks hard to come by.

19. West Bromwich Albion

West Brom stumbled out of the Premier League just like Fulham did two years ago, and spent largely on their manager to get them back to the top flight. Slaven Bilic proved to be right the man, and with a few shrewd signings (and dumb luck at the end of last year), they won promotion. Most of their money spent this window was re-signing players who were on loan, and that can only be part of the equation. They need a striker as a focal point to be the line leader, which every promoted club needs, and as of now they don't have that. Bilic has the managerial chops, but the squad is lacking in some key areas, which will prove to be fatal.

18. Burnley

At some point, this club is going to go down because they will get outstripped by clubs with more resources. Sean Dyche is a miracle worker keeping this club in the Premier League as long as he has, but even he might not be able to do much with a squad that rapidly thinned out and has made no additions this window outside of a reserve goalie. Somehow, even through Dyche openly feuding with management about money invested in the squad, he's back, and he might be enough to keep them up again, and safely. But at some point, predicting Burnley to go down will be correct, and this year may be just weird enough that even miracle workers can't pull another rabbit out of their hat.

17. Aston Villa

For most of last season, it looked like Villa would go the way of Fulham: big spenders whose transfer outlay barely papered over the cracks of a squad that was barely Premier League quality. But, they found a great escape last year, perhaps solely because of an incident against Sheffield United when Hawkeye failed to give a clear goal that almost assuredly would have sent them down. They still have Jack Grealish, who could and probably should be at a bigger club right now, and they spent lavishly on a new striker from Brentford in Ollie Watkins. They need to get those goals from one of their forwards if they're going to stay up, and it would help if their defense settled a bit. Will they be bitten by second season syndrome? 

16. West Ham United

This club, for all its faults, has no business being in relegation battles. They've spent and spent on countless players with potential who failed to meet it, which has meant a mid table club has ended up here. Now, they can't spend without selling, and David Moyes, for all of his faults, needs players to work with and doesn't really have a squad to do the job. However, they haven't sold Michail Antonio, Declan Rice or other key cogs, meaning that they should have enough quality to scrape by once again. But for this club, scraping by should never be good enough.

15. Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace were basically safe by March, when last season was suspended due to the pandemic. It became obvious after the restart that they knew they were safe, since their run of form, particularly towards the end of project restart, was horrific. Roy Hodgson knows this and always manages to get more out of a squad that is in a desperate need of a major refresh, but after last season when the squad was even more stale, he was still able to get results. Bringing back Michi Batshuayi on loan from Chelsea is a move that should do plenty to ease those concerns, at least temporarily. Wilfried Zaha, as of this writing, is still at Palace, and that bodes well as he's still their best player through all the transfer turmoil. This club will have its ebbs, but should be relatively safe come the end of the year.

14. Brighton & Hove Albion

Graham Potter's team at times looks absolutely overawed when they play the Premiership's big boys, but at times, they pull off amazing results, like against Spurs and Arsenal at home last year. Potter was able to get Brighton to play better looking soccer last year, which worked well against teams at their level. They were always a bit wasteful with their chances, but they made their chances count when they needed to. They were also relatively poor defensively, but adding Joel Veltman from Ajax and bringing back a star from Leeds' promotion campaign in Ben White should help solidify things somewhat. They also are developing some young players with promise. The Seagulls should be a good neutral watch this season, and a club that looks to be sticking around, too.

13. Sheffield United

Overlapping centerbacks. That sounds off, but the tactics worked, because Sheffield United spent no time in the relegation zone and conceded the fewest goals of any promoted side in Premier League history. Part of that has to do with Dean Henderson, the Manchester United loanee that is now back with his parent club, but the team buy in to the tactics and approach was truly amazing to see. While they didn't generate many chances, when they did, they finished them. That combination made the Blades much tougher than anyone saw coming. No player stands out above the rest, and that's what makes them unique. There's almost no way they compete for Europe this season, but there's little reason to see them going down, either.

12. Leeds United

If you have never watched a second of Premier League soccer, watch Leeds United this year and you'll be hooked for life. Leeds are a gigantic club that once made a Champions League semifinal, but was mismanaged into the dirt and only just returned to the Premier League this season. Their manager, Marcelo Bielsa, is nicknamed "El Loco" for a reason. His teams run, and run, and run. Bielsa's inspiration on managers like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and others cannot be overstated, and now the man himself gets to tackle the Premier League challenge. Last year, they were even better than their points haul indicated because they wasted so many good chances; according to Sky Sports, they underperformed their xG by 11 last year. You can't have that in the top flight. But this team is a little like Wolves; they're not any real threat to go down and could become a top half team in short order. And most importantly, they're going to be fun as hell.

11. Newcastle United

No club in this league has squandered more potential than Newcastle. They are a gigantic club that too often flirts with outright disaster. They were to be taken over by a group with ties to the Saudi Arabian government, which fell through in spectacular fashion, so the loathed Mike Ashley is still around. There are concerns, as always with this club. Their preseason has been dour, and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka could be out for months. But this club has quality, or at least enough of it, to stay away from relegation. Miguel Almiron is still special, Allan Saint-Maximin has been a bright spark and bringing in Jeff Hendrick and Ryan Fraser on free transfers is worth the risk. There is always something going on with Newcastle, and if they survived last season in tact, they'll probably do well enough again.

10. Southampton

Southampton have been a staging post for some of the greats in the Premier League in the last decade to launch. Players and managers alike have found their careers taking off on the South Coast, though there were moments where that looked almost impossible. They flirted with relegation a few too many times, and they lost 9-0 to Leicester at home last season when the whole project was on the verge of falling apart. But Ralph Hassenhuttl survived, and his team started to play a high pressing, high energy style that lead to success. Last season, Saints were absolutely terrible at home, which makes basically no sense. Should that turn around, they could and should challenge for Europe.

9. Everton

Carlo Ancelotti is one of the best managers in recent time, so to see him managing Everton is quite a shock, even now. It's even more of a shock to see players like James Rodriguez in Toffee blue as well. Their squad features players with so much potential: Richarlison, Allan, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, etc. They now need to reach it, which has been a problem for Everton in recent years. This manager has achieved so much, but this is his biggest challenge yet. Can they break the Sky Six hammerlock? They have the grit, but now they need the guile.

8. Leicester City

Watching Leicester lay waste to the league in the fall of last season was truly impressive, which makes it even more stunning to see them finish fifth when it looked like they had a Champions League spot in the bag. They really did collapse towards the end of last season in spectacular fashion. Key players like Jamie Vardy and James Maddison aren't leaving, but not many new players are coming. Their exquisite transfer business from the past also doesn't look to be continuing into the Brendan Rogers era. Add the Europa League to the mix and you get a club destined to slide down the table a little. It's now a matter to see whether they've hit their ceiling.

7. Wolves

An aside: Wolves apparently spent 40 million Euros on a young player from Porto who has played less than a dozen games, whose agent happens to be an adviser to Wolves ownership and also has direct ties to the manager and much of the squad. Hmmm... if you're not a Jorge Mendes fan, Wolves is not the club for you. But if Jorge Mendes FC doesn't turn you off, you'll find that they're still a fun team to watch that plays great soccer and has impressive talent that clubs around them envy. Raul Jimenez is one of the best strikers in the league, Adama Traore is a bulldozer on the wing with great skill and intelligence to boot, but their squad is extremely thin. With so many games in such a short period of time, even with the additions of young players from Jorge Mendes rolodex, at some point that's going to bite them. No Europe this year helps a tad, but it seems like this team found its ceiling last year and is now butting up against it. Maybe turning outside the Mendes sphere of influence would be worth it.

6. Spurs

Going from Mauricio Pochettino to Jose Mourinho was one of the biggest managerial shocks in recent years, especially for a club that seemed so in love with its manager for the first time in decades. Mourinho was able to scratch a European finish out of last season, benefited morbidly by the pandemic shutting down the season when most of his squad was on the training table. During the restart, Harry Kane recovered lost form which helped Spurs only lose once during that period. They've also signed players prior to deadline day in Matt Doherty and Pierre-Emile Hojberg in two spots of need, which is a welcome change. They will play a ton of games this season thanks to the Europa League, and the demands for Mourinho are what they were when he came in: Champions League and/or a trophy. It feels long past due that this Spurs team will get the latter, but they haven't yet. Is this the year, or is this the year the Mourinho shtick starts to wear thin?

5. Arsenal

Arsenal supporters are almost never optimistic, and that's with good reason: the club has frayed in recent years during the latter tenure of Arsene Wenger and the failure of Unai Emery. He's already won  a FA Cup and Community Shield, so some of the worries about his tenure have already been soothed, at least temporarily. They were able to beat Liverpool, City and Chelsea in that run of form too. Can Arteta fix Arsenal's chronic, ever-lasting problems in central defense and central midfield? Gabriel from Lille and William Saliba should help the former, but they're not the first centerbacks to come to Arsenal with hype and not meet it. Having one of the best strikers in the world in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang certainly helps paper over those cracks. They're developing a distinct identity and playing style, which has been lacking for a few years. Making the Champions League doesn't seem so far fetched now, nor does finishing ahead of Spurs for the first time since 2016 either, but there's still a noticeable gap between them and the top four for a reason.

4. Manchester United

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the right manager for this club that has been looking for far too long to find their true next man up after Sir Alex's retirement seven years ago. He's getting the most out of young players and those already there, and with additions like Bruno Fernandes, Harry McGuire and Donny Van De Beek, There was no silverware to back up the distinct progress made, but returning to the Champions League is an important milestone. If United sign Jadon Sancho, which is oft rumored but doesn't seem likely to happen, that could push them up a step or two. Clubs in their position see incremental progress, and incremental might not be good enough at United considering who and what is ahead of them. But for the first time in a long time, they're on the right path, and for good this time.

3. Chelsea

Roman Abramovich apparently has no idea that the world is in the grips of a global pandemic/financial crisis the likes of which we haven't seen in generations, because he's spending money like a drunken sailor. These are splashy signings too in Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. They're exciting additions to a group of young players and holdovers that Frank Lampard melded together into a great attacking force after a transfer ban and losing players like Eden Hazard. They'll score goals, no doubt, but they might give up a ton too, especially when their big addition to central defense is 35 year old Thiago Silva, which may help steadying the ship, but not raising it above the water line. They're better than last year's team that finished third for sure, but how much better? Are they still a cut below City and Liverpool? Oh, and we can't forget Kepa. Don't forget about Kepa. 

2. Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp's methodical build finally brought Anfield a title, and they did so in such spectacular fashion that the wait was worth it. But repeating as Champions is going to be extremely difficult, as City and others learned the hard way. This task is made harder since the only new signing they've made is a back up left back. That's not to say that their squad has suddenly begun to fall apart, but more is needed to keep up the pace with those around them. Will some of these hyped young players from the academy fill in the gaps? There's no doubt Liverpool are going to have a great chance to retain the title, but repeating will be harder than winning it the first time.

1. Manchester City

For all of Pep's spectacular collapses late in the Champions League, his teams know how to win trophies at home. And it's not like City were that "bad" last year either; in most other years, they'd have won the title. But they set such a standard that Liverpool did so well to beat that at some point, they were inevitably going to have to step aside. They're in transition away from the era of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany to younger players like Phil Foden and others. Last year, the surprise for City was not that their attack wilted, but the defense didn't play up to standards. Signing Nathan Ake from Bournemouth should help a little in that regard. Winning the title might not even be the biggest goal for City this season considering their European misadventures, but they are currently favorites to do it, simply because they might be less flawed than everyone else around them.

So those are the predictions for 2020-21, sure to be wrong in May or whenever the season ends if the pandemic flares up again, which is more than possible, and might be the surest bet in all these words. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

2020 NFL Season Predictions

 It doesn't seem real that there's going to be a full NFL season during a global pandemic still killing on average 1,000 Americans, but in a typical headstrong, stubborn American way, our true national pastime will soldier on. In many places, cheering fans will be replaced by awkward fake crowd noise and overbearing ads, but in a normal world, NFL games still featured plenty of that. With no preseason, it's hard to know what these games will even look like, but for many, sloppy football is still better than no football. These predictions are bad even in years with certainty, so these picks may end up even worse than usual. At least these won't be the only ones.

AFC East:

1. New England 10-6

2. Buffalo 9-7

3. Miami 7-9

4. NY Jets 4-12

2020 is so strange that the Patriots are still predicted to win the AFC East even though they'll have their first non-Tom Brady opening day starter since 2001 and many of their good players opted out thanks to the pandemic. But Cam Newton with a chip on his shoulder is scary, even though the rest of the Patriots are decidedly not that scary anymore. On paper, the Bills have the most talent in the division, but when the lasting memory of them from last year is Josh Allen not knowing which way was up during the Wild Card game, they end up getting a handicap. If the simplest question is which QB do you trust more, Newton or Allen, the answer is simple. Tua does not start the season for Miami as their QB but he'll end it under center, and the Dolphins will be competitive in every game since they now have the talent to go with the coaching from last season. The Jets had their best player opt out due to COVID-19, and Frank Gore might be starting over Le'Veon Bell even though he's old enough to have a child currently playing college football.

NFC East:

1. Dallas 11-5

2. Philadelphia 9-7

3. NY Giants 5-11

4. Washington 3-13

Somehow, Dallas conspired to throw the NFC East away last year, and that finally cost Jason Garrett his job. With better coaching this year, and small but necessary upgrades across the board, they should finally be able to put away this listless division. Philly's success this year will come largely if they stay healthy, but with history as a reference, that's nowhere near certain. They can win the division, but they're not as deep as Dallas, especially on defense. Daniel Jones has a new coach and a new offense, but his team still doesn't have the defense to back him up. And as for the team with no name, Ron Rivera has a massive clean up job to do, and that's more hoping the mess above him becomes slightly less messy. Is Dwayne Haskins the answer? Is he still the starter by the end of the year?

AFC North:

1. Baltimore 12-4

2. Pittsburgh 10-6

3. Cleveland 7-9

4. Cincinnati 5-11

The Ravens have the best QB and best player in the division, and though they won't win 14 like they did a year ago, having the best player and best QB be one and the same will tilt this division towards them again, though they'll have far more stiff competition this year than last. With Big Ben healthy, an offense with great potential could be back to their strength from the Killer B's era, and the defense might be starting to look somewhat like Steelers' defenses of old again. They're for sure a playoff team, and a sneaky Super Bowl contender in a top heavy AFC. Everyone thought this time last year that the Browns would finally turn the corner, and predictably, they didn't. They have the talent to finally make the postseason, but do you trust them? Joe Burrow will win the Bengals some games they shouldn't win, but this roster overall is still talent deficient, but the arrow is at least firmly pointing up.

NFC North:

1. Minnesota 10-6

2. Green Bay 9-7

3. Detroit 7-9

4. Chicago 6-10

Minnesota lost twice to Green Bay last year which cost them a division title, but they still pulled off a great upset at New Orleans in the Wild Card round. With Dalvin Cook and just enough on offense, even though they traded away Stefon Diggs for some reason, they should be the favorites in the division though they are more flawed than in recent years. Green Bay's 13-3 record last year was a fluke and everyone knows it, and after some bizarre moves this offseason, particularly in the draft, many are starting to wonder what the future of this team looks like. Their defense will be better than their offense again, which is strange to write. Matt Patricia looks to be another in a line of failed Bill Belichick disciples to have success as head coaches elsewhere, even though he's got a renewed Matthew Stafford throwing the ball around easily. And the Bears QB competition between Nick Foles and Mitch Trubisky tells you everything about where this team is heading: straight to the basement of this division.

AFC South:

1. Indianapolis 11-5

2. Tennessee 9-7

3. Houston 7-9

4. Jacksonville 4-12

If Andrew Luck didn't stunningly retire during the preseason last year, they would have been a contender for the Super Bowl. To finish 7-9 after that even with mediocre QB play, shows the talent on this roster that will carry them forward this year now that they've upgraded at that position. Late stage Philip Rivers will be enough with this roster construction to get the Colts where they need to go. Teams that play like Tennessee; run heavy with just enough QB play to get by are not bets for long term success, and the Titans are perpetually 7-9/8-8/9-7, but with the expanded postseason that might be enough to get them in again. When you trade away your best non-QB player for peanuts, your team isn't destined for success, and the Texans, beneficiaries of being in a terrible division for so long, are finally going to see that catch up to them. The Jaguars aren't tanking, that requires a plan which they don't have, but they're not the automatic worst team in the league that so many are saying they are. Not only do they have competition for it, but they're not as talent bereft as you think, just extremely young, which isn't a formula for success in a year with a giant global pandemic.

NFC South:

1. New Orleans 12-4

2. Tampa Bay 10-6

3. Atlanta 8-8

4. Carolina 6-10

This might be the last kick at the can for the Saints as currently constructed, which is a shame. They've been one of the most fun and fascinating teams in the NFL in recent years, only to be eliminated from the postseason in excrutiating fashion each time. It's not a matter of what they do in the regular season, it's a matter of getting over those mental hurdles in the playoffs. Tampa has the stars, and has the pieces, but can they put it all together in a year without a preseason? They are the Bucs, a team that has made the playoffs only twice since winning the Super Bowl in 2002. Atlanta feels like a team that is distinctly stuck in the messy middle; not good enough to contend for the playoffs but not bad enough for the bottom to fall out, which is evidenced by two consecutive 7-9 finishes, and it seems they're not budging from that. Carolina is going all out on the college model of success, and while that will benefit Christian McCaffrey's fantasy owners, what else do they have around him?

AFC West:

1. Kansas City 12-4

2. LA Chargers 7-9

3. Las Vegas (still weird) 6-10

4. Denver 6-10

No team has repeated as Super Bowl champ since the Patriots in 2004, but it feels like if any team in recent history is going to do it, it would be these Chiefs. Though hit by a few notable COVID-19 opt outs, they still have the best player in football and have the depth to overcome those losses. It also helps they play in a mediocre division. The Chargers will go with Tyrod Taylor instead of rookie Justin Herbert, probably wise since Herbert is such a divisive prospect and nowhere near polished yet, but this team always confounds and conspires to be worse than the sum of its parts. They could have the DPOY in Nick Bosa, a talented offense with Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler, and yet they don't have the look and feel of a playoff team. Derwin James being out is tough. A new city beckons for the Raiders, yet Vegas won't singlehandedly change this team's luck. Derek Carr might be on the last of his seemingly nine lives, and ever since that great 2016 run, he hasn't been able to recapture that form. The Broncos may have just lost Von Miller for the season, Bradley Chubb isn't healthy yet either, and the offensive line might well be a sieve. Not a great combination for a team that hasn't won in five years and a young QB with plenty of question marks.

NFC West:

1. San Francisco 11-5

2. Seattle 9-7

3. LA Rams 8-8

4. Arizona 7-9

10 years ago, the NFC West's division winner finished with a below .500 record, yet for most of the decade after, it was the best division in football by far. That's again the case in 2020, where a convincing argument can be made that all teams finish above .500. Though the 49ers are going to have a Super Bowl hangover of some kind, they're still a cut above everyone else in the division, even with perhaps the third best QB in the division. They're already a little banged up, but especially at WR, and thinner on the OL than last year, but every other team has a more fatal flaw than theirs. Seattle was also extremely flukey with their record since they won so many close games, and that is not replicable in 2020. They also don't have a good pass rush, or much of a running game to speak of. Relying on Russell Wilson to do absolutely everything is great in principle, not so in practice. Jared Goff is a perfectly acceptable QB making top 5 QB money, which is a bad combination on a roster that has become pretty lopsided and uneven even with superstars like Aaron Donald. If the Cardinals were in any other division, they'd probably make the playoffs considering Kyler Murray now has the best receiver in football to throw to. They're definitely going to be fun, but they may not be quite ready yet.

AFC Playoff teams:

1. Kansas City 12-4

2. Baltimore 12-4

3. Indianapolis 11-5

4. New England 10-6

5. Pittsburgh 10-6

6. Buffalo 9-7

7. Tennessee 9-7

NFC Playoff teams:

1. New Orleans 12-4

2. Dallas 11-5

3. San Francisco 11-5

4. Minnesota 10-6

5. Tampa Bay 10-6

6. Green Bay 9-7

7. Seattle 9-7

AFC Playoff Predictions:

Wild Card Round:

2. Baltimore over 7. Tennessee

3. Indianapolis over 6. Buffalo

5. Pittsburgh over 4. New England

Divisional Round:

1. Kansas City over 5. Pittsburgh

2. Baltimore over 3. Indianapolis

AFC Championship Game:

1. Kansas City over 2. Baltimore

NFC Playoff Predictions:

Wild Card Round:

2. Dallas over 7. Seattle

3. San Francisco over 6. Green Bay

5. Tampa Bay over 4. Minnesota

Divisional Round:

1. New Orleans over 5. Tampa Bay

3. San Francisco over 2. Dallas

NFC Championship Game:

1. New Orleans over 3. San Francisco

Super Bowl 55:

Kansas City over New Orleans 35-24

Award Predictions:

MVP: Patrick Mahomes (KC)

OPOY: Lamar Jackson (BAL)

DPOY: Aaron Donald (LAR)

OROY: Joe Burrow (CIN)

DROY: Chase Young (WSH)

Coach: Mike McCarthy (DAL)

Comeback: Cam Newton (NE)

Will there be a full season finishing on time? There will be a hiccup or two along the way considering the unprecedented nature of the season, but the NFL will have a full season either way. Whether it finishes on time is another matter, but surprisingly there haven't been any major disruptions yet. It seems more plausible than ever that the season will chart a normal course with regards to the calendar.

Apologies to anyone I jinxed with these predictions.