By: Brady Atkins
The 2020 NFL season is over. And as we sit here, three weeks removed from the Super Bowl, the final game of the season, what are we supposed to take away from the year?
17 weeks of games, 256 regular-season meetings in total, and a host of opportunities to take a trip down memory lane. For reasons, both football-related reasons and beyond, the 2020 NFL season was one to remember. But who were the players that defined the season? What were the games, the moments, that made 2020 the fun football campaign that it was?
From fanbase to franchise, there were plenty. But on the landscape of the league at large, here are seven moments that belong in the time capsule, that defined the 2020 NFL season.
1. Ravens vs Browns — Monday Night Football
What are you supposed to say about the game that had it all? Neither of these two teams represented the AFC in the Super Bowl, neither even made it through the Divisional Round of the playoffs. But on Monday Night of Week 14 — the two teams had what might have been the most iconic meeting of the regular season.
Records were set. Both Cleveland and Baltimore combined for a grand total of nine rushing touchdowns through the contest. The most in modern NFL history, and the most since 1922, back in the days when Rock Island was considered a dynasty akin to the Jordan-led Bulls.
Points were scored. The 2020 season saw the most points scored in the history of the league, and this game embodied just that, with a final score of 47 for the winning Ravens, and 42 for the Browns. The two offenses combined for 89 points that night, the most of any two teams in a regular-season game from the highest-scoring season in NFL history.
Memes were made. Beyond the actual football stakes, NFL Twitter was granted the gift of A) an appearance from the legendary Trace McSorely under center for the Ravens, and B) a locker room walk from Lamar Jackson for… what we’ll call, “unconfirmed circumstances.”
Perhaps both these teams will be forgotten to the sands of time, with neither making much noise in the postseason, but their Week 14 clash stands as a monument to the 2020 regular season.
2. Nine Full Weeks of ‘Letting Russ Cook’
Speaking of points scored, one of the most efficient, explosive, and all-around good-time offenses in the league for the first half of the season belonged to the Seattle Seahawks — despite the odds.
This was, and still is, a group that loves to run the football — a mentality instilled by their head coach, Pete Carroll. But for nine weeks, nine beautiful acts of football majesty, Carroll let his star quarterback Russell Wilson off the leash a bit. He, dare I say it, let Russ cook.
And cook Russ did. Wilson wasn’t just getting chances in the passing game — but he was making the most of them as well. Through those nine games, Wilson managed to hit the endzone through the air 28 times, adding nearly 2,800 passing yards into the mix — all on 70% completion percentage in an aerial attack that let the quarterback sling the rock at will.
But after their ninth game ended in a 23-16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, making the Seahawks losers of three of their last four, the party abruptly ended. Wilson’s attempts per game dropped from 37.1 to 32. His yards per attempt dropped. His touchdown rate dropped. His completion percentage dropped along with it. Russ was taken out of the kitchen.
But let’s never forget the time he had while he was there. For nine games, we all witnessed MVP-caliber Russell Wilson, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
3. Alvin Kamara’s Six-Touchdown Performance
It’s been said that once, many weeks ago, football fans never believed in Christmas Miracles. That all changed one holiday morning in 2020, when they got the chance to see one for themselves.
New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, with the power of Air Heads, Santa Claus, and the league’s worst run defense in yards per carry allowed on his side, put together a record-setting running back performance on Dec. 25 against the Minnesota Vikings.
A six-touchdown rushing performance in a 52-33 Week 16 catapulted Kamara into the record books, dusting off a record held for nearly a century — six rushing touchdowns, tied for the most with Ernie Nevers back in 1929.
Kamara brought the gift of history to the children of New Orleans, and with it, a glimmer of hope that fans of the team might have the best running back in the league.
4. Justin Herbert’s Surprise Breakout
Justin Herbert wasn’t supposed to play in his rookie season. He ended up winning Rookie of the Year.
He was supposed to sit behind Tyrod Taylor, who in recent years has turned into an NFL journeyman, bouncing from the Ravens to the Bills to the Browns to now the Los Angeles Chargers. Taylor started for the Chargers in Week One, and looked as he always has, someone who can distribute the ball well enough to get his team a win, but won’t light up the scoreboard doing it.
Was Taylor bound to bring the Chargers inspired quarterback play? Probably not. But he was exactly what the team wanted him to be, a bridge quarterback for a rookie quarterback seen as a raw prospect, who would need a year or two to develop into a franchise savior.
So when Herbert was called up in Week Two, replacing an injured Taylor, calling it shocking that he managed to go toe-to-toe with the reigning Super Bowl champions and the best quarterback in the league, would be an understatement.
From that win moving forward through the year, Herbert never looked back. Shattering just about every rookie record along the way, all while missing one game at the start of the year.
5. Tampa Bay’s Week Six Beatdown of Green Bay
The Tampa Bay Buccanneers played the role of underdog throughout most of the playoffs. Coming in as the NFC’s top Wild Card team, Tampa Bay faced three favored opponents in New Orleans, Green Bay, and Kansas City en route to a Super Bowl blowout victory.
But, maybe, the team shouldn’t have been doubted as much as they were. After all, back in Week Six, the Buccaneers showed the world exactly who they were in a 38-10 win over the Green Bay Packers– a statement win that would mirror the team’s performance in the Super Bowl.
The explosive offense of the Packers was silenced entirely in their meeting with Tampa Bay. Winners of their first four games of the season, Green Bay hadn’t scored fewer than 30 points in any contest during their 4-0 start. Their eventual MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers had thrown for 13 touchdowns and not a single interception up to that point. And even still, the Packers found themselves without answers.
Their 10 points scored would stand as their lowest total throughout the 2020 season. Rodgers’ two picks ended as the most he threw in a game in 2020, and made up for 40% of his total interceptions on the season. The Tampa Bay defense also forced the Packers’ quarterback to his lowest completion percentage of the year, his second-fewest total passing yards, and the only time during the season where he would fail to record a passing touchdown.
This game was a precursor to the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers offense did their part, but the defense stood tall and gave a juggernaut Green Bay offense fits for 60 minutes.
6. Aaron Donald’s Sixth-Straight Statement Season
Los Angeles Rams’ defensive tackle Aaron Donald was drafted 13th overall in 2014. In his first season as a pro, he would go on to record nine sacks in 12 starts, earning a Pro Bowl birth and Defensive Rookie of the Year in what would go down as a very nice first season in the NFL.
In six seasons since then, Aaron Donald has blasted past the role of an elite defensive player into a category all his own. The ‘Donald Zone,’ where he and only he stands.
Aaron Donald has made an All-Pro team in six consecutive seasons. Nobody at the defensive tackle position is better. Aaron Donald has won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award in three of his last four seasons. Nobody on the defensive side of the ball is better than him, either.
Aaron Donald has transcended what we all assumed possible for a player in the defensive tackle position. The six-time All-Pro recorded 13.5 sacks in 2020, good for second in the league. Only one other tackle recorded more than ten. All of this, while being double-teamed on 70% of his pass-rush snaps. And sometimes tripled-teamed, just to be safe. Aaron Donald just might be the best player in the NFL.
And of course, he’s been in that argument for a long while before 2020. But this season reaffirmed what most of us already knew. There is nobody else quite like Aaron Donald.
7. The Erosion of the Patriots Dynasty
When was the last time you remember the Patriots being a bad football team? Or at least, on the level they were in 2020 — a competent, yet unspectacular group? I’ll answer that for you.
It was the 2000 season, when the team went 5-11 as a scrappy young go-getter named Tom Brady rode the bench as a wide-eyed, sixth-round rookie. That’s the last time the Patriots were a bad team. That’s the last time they finished below .500.
That is, of course, until the 2020 season. Stalwarts at the top of the NFL standings for two decades no longer, as New England’s reign as the league’s pre-eminent dynasty finally came to a close. Tom Brady found a new team, and the Patriots found themselves floundering on offense.
The New England Patriots were an irrelevant, unassuming team in 2020. That’s what makes them such a relevant talking point.