With less than eight weeks to go until the start of the NFL season, there’s still no guarantee that we’re even going to have an NFL season, and if we do, there’s no guarantee that every game is going to get played. Due to the coronavirus, there’s always a chance that the NFL could be forced to cancel a week or two this year, which would definitely make things interesting, because it’s the one league where every game really counts.
The thing about the NFL is that teams only get 16 games to prove how good they are, which means every time they lose, they’re basically flushing 6.25 percent of their season down the toilet. Although every regular season game is important, some of them are more important than others, and those are the games we’re going to take a look at right now.
Welcome to our annual look at every team’s one “make or break” game, where we’ll be breaking down the most important game for all 32 teams.
Before we get to the list though, let’s go over the rules.
The first rule is that no game is listed twice. Yes, the Ravens and Chiefs play each other this year, and yes, it’s a big game, but since we don’t want to break our own rule, we didn’t list it as the “make or break” game for both teams.
The second rule is that there are no other rules, because no one likes reading rules, so let’s get to the list of the one “make or break” game for every team.
Week 1 vs. Dolphins. Under normal circumstances, a Dolphins-Patriots game in Week 1 probably wouldn’t qualify as must-see TV, but this season definitely doesn’t qualify as normal for New England. For the first time in nearly two decades, no one actually knows if the Patriots are going to be any good, and a big reason for that is because they no longer have Tom Brady. If the Patriots pull off a win in Week 1, not only would prove that they can win without Brady, but it would come against a team that Brady had a difficult time beating. (Remember, the last time we saw Brady on the field for a regular season game, the Patriots lost to the Dolphins in a total shocker that cost New England a chance at a first-round bye in the playoffs. Brady was also 3-3 in his final six games against the Dolphins.) On the other hand, if the Patriots lose this game, it would signify that the AFC East is wide open for the first time in 20 years.
Week 8 vs. Patriots. With Tom Brady no longer in the AFC East, the Bills have suddenly turned into a trendy pick to win the division. However, before they can actually be taken seriously as a favorite to win the division, they need to do something they almost never do: beat New England. In their past 30 games against the Patriots dating back to 2003, the Bills are just 3-27, and as bad as that sounds, things have actually been even worse since the arrival of Josh Allen. With Allen as QB, the Bills are 0-4 against the Patriots while scoring an average of just 11.3 points per game. Basically, Allen hasn’t been able to do anything against Bill Belichick’s defense, and since Belichick is still in New England, it won’t be surprising if Allen continues to struggle. A win over the Patriots in Week 8 would prove that the Bills should be taken seriously to win the AFC East, a division they haven’t won since 1995.
Week 1 at Bills. With the AFC East seemingly up for grabs in 2020, this game is going to be a chance for the Jets to prove they’re going to be a contender to win the division this year, and to make things even sweeter, the Jets could also get some revenge for their season-opening loss from 2019. Last year, the Jets went full Jets and blew a 16-0 lead to the Bills in Week 1 in what ended up being a 17-16 loss. After that loss, the Jets season basically went down the drain, which seems to happen a lot with the Jets. One thing to remember about the Jets is that they had one of the NFL’s best records over the second half of the season last year, going 6-2 down the stretch. Thanks to this Week 1 game, we should find out rather quickly whether or not that momentum will be carrying over to 2020.
Week 2 vs. Bills. Dolphins coach Brian Flores completely revamped his roster this offseason, especially on defense, and he’s going to find out rather quickly if his makeover is going to pay off. The Dolphins are one of just seven teams this year that will open the season with two straight games against divisional opponents, and if Miami can somehow sweep its first two games, that would actually put the Dolphins in the driver’s seat for the AFC East after two weeks. It’s been so long since the Dolphins have been in the driver’s seat for anything that they probably don’t even remember how to drive, so there’s a good chance they could end up crashing the car. However, a win over New England in Week 1 followed by a win over the Bills in Week 2 would be a statement way for Miami to start the season.
Week 3. vs Chiefs. Lamar Jackson is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL, but if there are two things he hasn’t been able to do, it’s win a playoff game or beat the Chiefs. If the Ravens are ever going to win a Super Bowl with Jackson, they’re likely going to have to beat Kansas City at some point, which Jackson has never done. The Ravens’ electrifying quarterback is 0-2 all-time against Mahomes and the Chiefs. However, both of those games were played in Kansas City while this year’s game will be played in Baltimore. This game could end up having major playoff ramifications too, and that’s because the winner here should have the upper hand when it comes to earning the top seed in the AFC. The reason that’s important this year is because only one AFC team will be getting a bye under the NFL’s new playoff format.
Week 12 vs. Ravens. The Steelers haven’t missed the playoffs for three straight seasons under Mike Tomlin, but that’s exactly what could happen if they miss out on the postseason in 2020. If the Steelers are going to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, one thing they’re probably going to have to do is beat the Ravens, and the perfect time to do it would be in this game, which will be played in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night. One intriguing thing about this game is that it could mark the first time that Ben Roethlisberger and Lamar Jackson have faced each other. Jackson wasn’t yet the starter when the Steelers played the Ravens twice in 2018 and Roethlisberger was injured for both Steelers-Ravens games in 2019.
Week 2 vs. Bengals. If there’s one team that almost always seems to fall flat on its face to start a season, it’s the Cleveland Browns, and nothing would prove that point more than a loss to the Bengals. Although a win in this game certainly wouldn’t “make” the Browns season, a loss to the Bengals definitely could “break” things. The Browns aren’t quite being hyped as much as they were before the 2019 season, but the team does have high expectations this year and nothing would send those expectations down the toilet faster than a loss to the Bengals in a Thursday primetime game that will also be serving as Cleveland’s home opener.
Week 1 vs. Chargers. Let’s be honest, no one is really expecting the Bengals to do anything this year. One of the Bengals’ biggest problems is that Joe Burrow is only going to have roughly five weeks of practice under his belt before he has to take the field for the first game of his career. Although that’s not an ideal situation, there’s always a chance that Burrow could come out on fire to start the season, and if that happens, the Bengals might be able to pull off a Week 1 upset. A win over the Chargers could definitely “make” the Bengals season. For one, it would get the Bengals halfway to their win total from last year, and more importantly, it would likely give Burrow some serious confidence going forward, and with a confident Burrow, the Bengals offense could become a dangerous one.
Week 3 at Steelers. Someone in the NFL’s scheduling department must really hate the Texans, because they were given a brutal stretch to start the season. Not only do they have to open the year in Kansas City, but after that, the Texans have to play the Ravens in Week 2, which makes Houston the first team since 2005 to start the year with back-to-back games against the past two NFL MVPs. Since the Texans will potentially be starting down the barrel of 0-2, the game against the Steelers becomes all that more important, because if the Texans start 0-3, their season will basically be over. Yes, this team made the playoffs after an 0-3 start in 2017, but that was in a time before Bill O’Brien started getting crazy and trading away star players for next to nothing.
Week 15 vs. Texans. If the Colts want to win the AFC South in 2020, they’re going to need to take down the defending champions. This Week 15 game will mark the second time in three weeks that these two teams will have played each other, and it could come with some added spice because it might end up being played in primetime. The game is one of five that could end up getting flexed to Saturday in Week 15 (any game that’s not flexed to Saturday will be played on Sunday). In each of the past two years, the winner of the second Colts-Texans game has ended up advancing further in the playoffs than the loser.
Week 17 at Texans. For the past three years, at least one AFC South team has earned a playoff berth by winning a game in Week 17, and that game has always involved the Titans, which why it feel like this will definitely be a “make or break” game. In 2017, the Titans beat the Jaguars during the final week of the season to clinch a playoff berth. In 2018, the Titans played the Colts in Week 17 in a game where the winner was rewarded with a playoff berth (the Titans lost). In 2019, the Titans didn’t clinch a playoff berth until they beat the Texans in the regular season finale. Basically, Tennessee’s final game of the season has basically turned into a de facto playoff game, so this year probably won’t be any different.
Week 1 vs. Colts. If you look at the odds in Vegas, it’s pretty clear that the bookies out in the desert fully expect the AFC South to be a three-horse race between every team in the division not named the Jaguars. Although the season is 16 games long, the Jaguars could turn the AFC South conversation upside down if they were able to pull off an upset win over the Colts in Week 1. Jacksonville also has another divisional game in Week 2 (against the Titans), which means if everything falls right for the Jaguars over the season’s first two weeks, we might have to start taking Jacksonville seriously.
Kansas City Chiefs
Week 4 vs. Patriots. It’s tough to find a game on the Chiefs schedule that could “make or break” their season, but there is definitely a short stretch where things could get interesting. After traveling to Baltimore for a game in Week 3, the Chiefs have to turn around and play the Patriots at home in Week 4. A loss to the Patriots would potentially be devastating and that’s because it could kill Kansas City’s chances of earning a first-round bye in the playoffs (only one team in the AFC will be getting a first-round bye).
Week 1 vs. Titans. After watching Drew Lock close the season with a 4-1 record last year, the Broncos are excited to see what their young quarterback can do in 2020. One thing about that 2019 finish though is that those four wins weren’t exactly impressive, because they came against teams that combined to go 23-40-1 in 2019. That being said, Lock and the Broncos could instantly prove they’re capable of being a playoff contender this year by beating a Titans team that made it to AFC title game last season.
Week 2 vs. Saints. If there’s one thing the Raiders haven’t been able to do since the arrival of Jon Gruden, it’s beat good teams. Since Gruden’s return to the sideline in 2018, the Raiders have gone 0-14 against teams that eventually made the playoffs, which is one reason why the Raiders’ Week 2 game against New Orleans is going to be so important. If the Raiders can knock off the Saints, it would prove they’re capable of beating good teams, and just as important, it would give them a win during their first ever game played in Las Vegas. On the other hand, if the Raiders lose to the Saints, they might not win again until November, and that’s because after New Orleans, the Raiders will play New England, Buffalo, Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
Los Angeles Chargers
Week 3 vs. Panthers. The Chargers are loaded with talent this year, but no one seems to know if they’re going to be any good, and a big reason for that is because of the team’s quarterback play. For the first time in 15 years, Philip Rivers won’t be the starter; instead, the team will be rolling with Tyrod Taylor (with Justin Herbert also being an outside possibility to be the team’s Week 1 starter). If the Chargers are going to be playoff contenders, one thing they absolutely can’t do in 2020 is lose at home to a rebuilding Panthers team. If Los Angeles loses this game, Anthony Lynn should go ahead and send Taylor to the bench and just roll with Justin Herbert for the rest of the season.
Week 16 at Cowboys. Over the past three years, the NFC East has basically been a two-team race as the Cowboys and Eagles are the only two that have won a division title in that period, and it’s starting to feel like this season is going to be more of the same. Although the Eagles have some huge games on their schedule (San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans), it feels like this game in Dallas will be their biggest, and that’s because there’s a good chance the winner will end up winning the division.
Week 1 at Rams. There aren’t many teams in the NFL that are going to be under more pressure in Week 1 than the Dallas Cowboys, and Dak Prescott is likely going to be feeling a lot of that, especially since he’ll be playing out the season on his one-year franchise tag deal. Another person who will be feeling the pressure is Mike McCarthy. In his first game as Cowboys coach, he gets to face a team that Dallas throttled 44-21 last year. That’s notable because if McCarthy starts off his Cowboys tenure by losing to a team that Jason Garrett beat by 23 points, then McCarthy’s popularity will quickly take a nosedive in Dallas. Basically, if the Cowboys lose this game, everyone in Dallas is going to be feeling some serious pressure after just one week of the season, and most of that pressure will be felt by Prescott and McCarthy.
Week 1 at Steelers. If there’s one team in the NFL that could make a huge statement in Week 1, it’s the New York Giants. If you saw this team play last year, you probably noticed that the Giants offense was painful to watch at times. In their season opener, they’ll get to go up against one of the best defenses in the NFL, which means we’re going to find out real quick if the Giants offense actually got any better. One big problem for the Giants is that if they lose this game, they could be staring at an 0-5 start. After the Steelers, the Giants play three of four on the road with games against the Bears (at Chicago), 49ers, Rams (at Los Angeles) and Cowboys (at Dallas).
Week 1 vs. Eagles. There’s no team in the NFL that’s currently in more disarray than Washington. They don’t have a name, they’re dealing with some serious off-field allegations and they’re coming off a season where they finished with the worst record in the NFC. Basically, fans in D.C. don’t really have anything to be excited about, but that could change if Washington could somehow pull off an upset against the Eagles in Week 1. For at least one week, Washington would be atop the division, and at this point, that’s about all you can ask for if you’re a fan of this team.
Week 9 at 49ers. The Packers got absolutely steamrolled by the 49ers, not once, but twice last season. The first time around, the Packers lost 37-8, and then they followed that up with a 37-20 loss in the NFC title game. If the Packers want to prove they’re actually a Super Bowl contender this season, beating the 49ers would definitely help.
Week 5 at Seahawks. For the past two years, the Vikings’ game against the Seahawks has turned into a “make or break” situation for Minnesota, so we’re just going to assume it’s going to happen again in 2020. Two years ago, the Vikings lost to the Seahawks in Week 14 and then ended up missing the postseason by one game. In 2019, the Vikings went to the playoffs as a six-seed, but could have been at least one spot higher if they had been able to beat the Seahawks in Week 13. Basically, this game always seems to have playoff implications, which isn’t great news for the Vikings because they’re usually on the losing end. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is 0-3 in his career against the Seahawks.
Week 1 at Lions. With less than seven weeks to go until the start of the regular season, it’s still completely unclear who the starting quarterback is going to be in Chicago. Winning the job could actually end up being a bad thing, and that’s because if the player who wins the job goes out and loses to the Lions in Week 1, fans are going to be screaming for that quarterback to be benched. For the Bears, a win here won’t “make” their season, but it certainly could “break” it while also ramping up a quarterback controversy. The smart move here for Nick Foles might be to lose the job in training camp, learn the offense a little bit more, and then take the job later in the season after Mitchell Trubisky inevitably gets benched for playing like Mitchell Trubisky.
Week 2 at Packers. Due to the fact that the Lions had a disastrous 2019 season, it’s easy to forget that they actually got off to an impressive start, going 2-0-1 over their first three games. Unfortunately for Detroit, in the weeks after that Matthew Stafford would get injured and the wheels eventually fell of the wagon, which was followed by the wagon catching fire and exploding. Two of the Lions’ most painful losses last season came against the Packers. In both games, the Lions led or were tied for all 60 minutes, only to lose on a field goal that went through the uprights with 0:00 showing on the clock. If the Lions are completely healthy, they could end up being a dark horse contender for the NFC North title, and nothing would put them in the conversation faster than an early season win in Green Bay.
New Orleans Saints
Week 10 vs. 49ers. When these two teams met in 2019, it definitely ended up being a “make or break” game for the Saints. Last year, New Orleans lost 48-46 to San Francisco, which ended up being costly; not only did the Saints eventually lose out on the No. 1 seed in the NFC due to the loss, but they also missed out on getting a first-round bye. Both of these teams are expected to be playoff contenders once again in 2020, which means it won’t be surprising if the winner of this game eventually ends up landing the top seed in the NFC for the second straight year.
Week 1 vs. Seahawks. At one point last year it looked like Dan Quinn was going to get fired, but then he saved his job by closing the season with a 6-2 run over the final eight games of the year. Falcons owner Arthur Blank will surely be hoping that the momentum from last year will be carrying over to this year, and the good news for Blank is that he’s not going to have to wait long to find out. The Falcons will be opening the season against the Seahawks, and beating Seattle would definitely be a huge boost for team confidence. A win would be big because the Falcons have a rough stretch to start the season. Over the first four weeks, they’ll be playing four teams that finished .500 or above in 2019. The Falcons are one of just three teams in the NFL, along with the Texans and Giants, who won’t face a single team that finished under .500 over the first four weeks of the year.
Week 9 vs. Saints. As division rivals, these two teams will obviously be playing each other twice in 2020, but the big one for the Bucs won’t come until their second meeting with New Orleans. The problem with the first meeting is that it will be played in Week 1, which means Tom Brady will only have roughly five weeks of practice under his belt before having to face New Orleans. It’s a distinct advantage for the Saints, and it will be surprising if the Bucs can pull off a win. However, by the time the second game rolls around, Brady will be much more familiar with Tampa Bay’s offense, which should make this game way more fun. Also, if the Bucs lose in Week 1 this Week 9 game basically becomes a must-win situation if Tampa Bay wants to have any shot of winning the division.
Week 1 vs. Raiders. The Panthers overhauled everything during the offseason — they have a new coach, a new quarterback, and there’s a good chance that half their defense is going to be made up of guys who have never played a down for the team. What this all means is that expectations aren’t exactly high for the Panthers this year. That being said, this is a team that could pull off a few surprises in 2020 and no one should be shocked if those surprises start in Week 1. The Panthers benefit from a friendly opener, and that’s because they’ll be facing a Raiders team that’s just 5-15 in their past 20 games that have kicked off at 1 p.m. ET.
San Francisco 49ers
Week 17 vs. Seahawks. If you had to rank all the “make or break” games from 2019, 49ers-Seahawks in Week 17 would definitely be at the top of the list. In the final game of the NFL season, these two teams faced each other in a game that had major ramifications for five different teams, including themselves.
In what will go down as one of the wildest finishes in NFL history, the 49ers ended up beating the Seahawks by one inch.
If anyone ever asks why people says “football is a game of inches,” just show them that clip. The 49ers and Seahawks have one of the best rivalries in the NFL and since they’re playing each other in Week 17 again this year, no one will be surprised if it’s just as thrilling as last year’s game with just as much on the line.
Week 16 vs. Rams. The Seahawks made the playoffs last year, so it’s easy to forget that this team went through a December collapse, which we’re only mentioning because that collapse started with a loss to the Rams. As a matter of fact, if there’s one team the Seahawks have struggled with over the past few years, it’s definitely the Rams. Since December 2017, the Seahawks are just 1-4 against the Rams, and that one win only happened because Greg Zuerlein missed a 44-yard field goal with 11 seconds to play in Week 5 last season.
The Seahawks’ struggles with the Rams are a big reason why they haven’t been able to win the division over the past few years. Although these two teams will play twice in 2020, the Week 16 game should be bigger because it’s later in the season, which means a lot more will likely be on the line.
Los Angeles Rams
Week 12 vs. 49ers. Although these two teams will play twice in 2020, the second meeting feels bigger for the Rams, and that’s because it’s going to come at the end of a late season stretch that could make or break their season. After a Week 9 bye, the Rams have to face the Seahawks in Week 10 and travel to Tampa in Week 11 before coming home to host the 49ers in Week 12. Winning at least two of these three games would be huge for the Rams, and if one of those two wins came against the 49ers, the Rams would probably feel pretty good about their playoff chances heading into the final month of the season.
Week 1 at 49ers. The Cardinals had an ugly record in 2019 (5-10-1), so it’s easy to forget that they almost beat the 49ers, not once, but twice. Not only did they lose 28-25 in Week 9, but they also lost a 36-25 thriller in Week 11 (if you’re wondering how an 11-point loss can be considered a thriller, it’s because of this: the Cardinals were leading 26-23 with 40 seconds left). The 49ers had some serious trouble with the Cards offense last year and that was while Arizona had a first-year coach who was working with a rookie quarterback. In 2020, Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray should both be better, which makes this opener feel like a very winnable game for Arizona. If the Cardinals can pull off the upset, the NFC West could end up being the most exciting division race to watch in 2020.