It was almost exactly two months ago that the NFL released its 2020 schedule, and although we covered the release from nearly every angle back then, there was one angle we missed and it’s an angle that we’re going to cover right now.
Ladies and gentlemen, get your calendar ready, because we’re going to rank the top 10 coaching matchups on the 2020 NFL schedule. Although most fans will automatically be interested in any game that features two big stars — like Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes, which will be happening on Nov. 29 — the chess match that goes on between two coaches can be just as fascinating as the action on the field.
Whenever I’m watching the Patriots, I spend half the game wondering if any opposing coach will ever be able to out-Belichick Bill Belichick like Mike Vrabel did during Tennessee’s playoff win over New England in January.
Although Vrabel and Belichick won’t be facing each other this year, both guys did make our top-10 list.
By the way, this list only has one rule and that rule is that I decided not to include any divisional coaching matchups. Am I excited to see Kliff Kingsbury vs. Kyle Shanahan? Yes, but that game happens twice a year and if you play a team twice a year, you can’t be on this list.
Remember, this isn’t a list of the top 10 coaches in the NFL, it’s a list of the 10 best coaching matchups of 2020. If you’d rather read a list of the top 10 coaches in the NFL, you can do that by clicking here. For everyone else, let’s get to the 10 best coaching matchups of the 2020 season.
10. Sean McVay vs. Sean McDermott (Week 3: Rams at Bills)
In this “Battle of the Seans,” we get one of the NFL’s brightest offensive minds going up against one of the NFL’s brightest defensive minds. Besides their first name, these two coaches actually have a few other things in common, like the fact that they both took over beleaguered franchises and immediately turned them into contenders. On McVay’s end, he was hired in 2017 to coach a Rams team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2004 and hadn’t had a winning season since 2003. Thanks to McVay and his innovative offense, the Rams immediately turned things around, and since his hiring, the team has had three winning seasons, two playoff trips and one Super Bowl appearance. After watching his offense slightly struggle in 2019, McVay will likely be revamping a little this offseason, which is why this should be an interesting early test for him, and a fun game to watch for the rest of us. McDermott was hired in the same year as McVay, and like his Rams counterpart, he turned things around quickly in Buffalo. During his first year with the team in 2017, he led the Bills to their first playoff berth since 1999. He’s also slowly built a defensive unit that has now turned into one of the best defenses in the NFL. In 2019, the Bills surrendered the third fewest yards and the second fewest points.
9. Bill Belichick vs. Jon Gruden (Week 3: Raiders at Patriots)
Jon Gruden might not admit it, but I’m guessing he circled this game on his calendar in the first five seconds after the NFL schedule came out in May. Gruden and Belichick will be forever tied together for one reason, and that reason is the controversial “Tuck Rule” game during the divisional round of the playoffs in January 2002. Although Raiders and Patriots fans don’t need any reminder of what happened in that game, here’s a quick refresher for everyone else.
Thanks to the tuck rule working out in their favor, the Patriots ended up winning the game 16-13 and that win catapulted them to their first Super Bowl win. As for Gruden, that loss ended up being the final game he would coach with the Raiders during his first stint with the team. Gruden is still very bitter about what happened and he doesn’t really try to hide it. As recently as January 2019, he was asked about the tuck rule loss.
“You don’t ever get over that. It’s the last time that team will ever be together. It’ll never be the same,” Gruden told the San Jose Mercury News.
Since that game in 2002, Gruden and Belichick have only crossed paths ONCE on the field, and that came in 2005. Gruden is probably extra excited about this game and that’s because this is the best Raiders team he’s had since he was brought in 2018. Gruden out for Tuck Rule revenge makes this a fun coaching match-up.
8. Mike Tomlin vs. Mike McCarthy (Week 9: Steelers at Cowboys)
Not only does this game give us one of the best historical rivalries in football, but this game is also giving us one of the most underrated coaching matchups of the past decade. Tomlin and McCarthy have coached against each other a total of four times, and somehow, each of those games has been a thriller, and because of that, I don’t expect anything less this time around. All four games were decided by seven points or less, including Super Bowl XLV, when McCarthy’s Packers won a 31-25 shootout over Tomlin and the Steelers. Ironically enough, that Super Bowl was played in Dallas, which is where the two coaches will be meeting each other this year.
By the time this game rolls around in Week 9, the Cowboys offense should have a good feel for McCarthy’s playbook, and as for the Steelers, as long as Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy, this game should be must-see TV.
7. Mike Vrabel vs. John Harbaugh (Week 11: Titans at Ravens)
There weren’t too many games last year where John Harbaugh got out-coached, but one of them where it definitely happened was in the playoffs against Mike Vrabel and the Titans. In one of the biggest playoff upsets of the past decade, the Titans went into Baltimore as a 10-point underdog and beat down the Ravens 28-12. You have to think Harbaugh would love to get revenge in this game. On the other hand, there’s a good chance Vrabel will want to prove that Tennessee’s postseason win wasn’t a fluke and that his team can stop Lamar Jackson again. One interesting thing to note is that Vrabel will basically be serving as the Titans’ defacto defensive coordinator this year, which means it will fall on him to come up with a plan to stop the Ravens’ speedy quarterback. In 2019, the Titans had Dean Pees at defensive coordinator, but he retired after the season, and Vrabel decided not to replace him.
6. Doug Pederson vs. Mike Tomlin (Week 5: Eagles at Steelers)
It looks like we’re finally going to find out who the best NFL coach is in the state of Pennsylvania. Tomlin and Pederson have met exactly once on the field during their time as head coaches, and that came back in 2016 in a game that showed just how good of a coach Pederson can be. In just his third game ever as Philly’s coach, Pederson’s Eagles handed Tomlin’s Steelers a 34-3 beatdown. The win was impressive, because it came over a Steelers team that would eventually make it all the way to the AFC title game that season. Both of these coaches already have a Super Bowl win under their belts, and both of these coaches have built a roster that should compete for another title in 2020. Tomlin is one of the NFL’s smartest defensive minds and it will be fascinating to watch him go up against Pederson, who has one of the league’s most creative offensive minds.
5. Andy Reid vs. Sean Payton (Week 15: Chiefs at Saints)
The NFL might want to make sure there’s two scoreboard operators working this game, because if there’s only one guy, he might not be able to keep up with all the points that will likely be scored in this December showdown, which will be televised on CBS. Reid and Payton are arguably the two best offensive coaches in the NFL right now, and unfortunately for us, it’s not often that we get to see them coach against each other. Over the past decade, Reid and Payton have only met ONCE, and that meeting came in 2016 when the Saints beat the Chiefs 27-21. That was before Reid had Patrick Mahomes though, so you should probably expect a few more points this time around (Reid and Payton would have coached against each other in 2012, but Payton was suspended for the entire season due to bountygate). This coaching matchup is also intriguing, because it could end up being a Super Bowl preview.
4. Harbaugh vs. Belichick (Week 10: Ravens at Patriots)
This has arguably been one of the most entertaining coaching rivalries over the past decade, and one reason it’s been so entertaining is because it hasn’t been one-sided. Since September 2012, Harbaugh and Belichick have faced each other six times with each coach winning three games. One of the most memorable games came back in January 2015 when an irate Harbaugh complained after the game that the Patriots had been running illegal formations during a 35-31 playoff win.
The two coaches actually have a long history. Not only have Harbaugh and Belichick known each other for more than 30 years, but Belichick actually played a part in the Ravens’ decision to hire Harbaugh in 2008 when he endorsed him during a call with Baltimore owner Steve Bisciotti. Harbaugh and Belichick are two of only four coaches in the NFL who have been with the same team since 2008.
3. Reid vs. Harbaugh (Week 3: Chiefs at Ravens)
If there’s one coach John Harbaugh can’t figure out how to beat, it’s Andy Reid. These two teams have met a total of three times since Reid was hired by the Chiefs in 2013, and Harbaugh has come out on the losing end in each of those games. Having Lamar Jackson as his quarterback hasn’t even helped Harbaugh, who’s 0-2 against the Chiefs WITH Jackson. The Ravens had the best record in the NFL last year and Harbaugh is absolutely one of the best coaches in the league, but Baltimore is going to have a tough time getting back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2012 if Harbaugh can’t figure out a way to beat the Chiefs. This matchup is especially juicy because Harbaugh actually coached for nine years under Reid. During Reid’s time in Philadelphia, Harbaugh served as the special teams coordinator from 1999 until 2007. Harbaugh finally left in 2008 when he was hired to become coach of the Ravens.
2. Belichick vs. Reid (Week 4: Patriots at Chiefs)
When the NFL schedule comes in any year where the Chiefs and Patriots are playing each other, this is almost always one of the first games I look for. It doesn’t get much better than a game featuring arguably the best defensive mind in NFL history (Belichick) going up against one of the best offensive minds in today’s NFL. The fact that Reid now has Patrick Mahomes to work with only adds even more spice to this coaching matchup. Since hiring Reid in 2013, the Chiefs have gone 3-3 against Belichick and the Patriots, which puts Reid on a short list of coaches that have beaten Belichick three times over the past six years. One fascinating thing about Reid is that when he beats the Patriots, it’s almost always in dominating fashion. In the Reid’s three wins over Belichick, the Chiefs have won by an average of 16.3 points (To put that in perspective, all of Belichick’s wins have been by seven points or less).
Also, we should not forget that the Belichick-Reid rivalry gave us possibly the best Cincinnati-related quote of all-time. After a 41-14 blowout win for the Chiefs back in 2014, “We’re on to Cincinnati” officially entered the national lexicon.
Let’s hope we get something equally amazing from the losing coach after the game this year.
1. Belichick vs. the NFC West (Pete Carroll, Kyle Shanahan, Kliff Kingsbury, Sean McVay)
I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I’m pretty sure I just technically turned my top 10 list into a top 13 list by having four different coaches in the top spot. In my defense, I’ve been in quarantine since March and I can no longer count. However, I wanted to lump the entire NFC West together, because I’m genuinely fascinated by all four games the division will be playing against Belichick, and that’s mostly because three of the coaches in the division will be re-living a Super Bowl nightmare.
Belichick vs. Kingsbury (Week 12, Cardinals at Patriots): Before we officially categorize Kliff Kingsbury as one of the best young offensive minds in the NFL, I’m going to need to see how he does against a defensive genius like Belichick. At times last year, the Cardinals offense looked like it was going to take the NFL by storm, but then at other times, it would completely sputter. In 2019, the Cardinals struggled against almost every team that had a good defense, which means this game could end up being a rough one for Arizona. One fun twist in this match-up is that Belichick actually DRAFTED Kingsbury. The Cardinals coach was a sixth-round pick for the Patriots in 2003, but because New England already had a guy they were happy with at quarterback, Kingsbury never played a down for the team.
Belichick vs. McVay (Week 14, Patriots at Rams): The last time we saw these two coaches on the field together came back in Super Bowl LIII, which is probably a game that McVay would like to forget. Not only did McVay get completely out-coached during New England’s 13-3 win, but it was so bad that he openly admitted that he got outcoached (coaches aren’t fond of admitting that). It will be interesting to see if McVay has learned from his mistakes or if the Patriots walk in to Los Angeles and embarrass the Rams once again.
Belichick vs. Shanahan (Week 7, 49ers at Patriots): The last time we saw these two coaches on the field together came back in Super Bowl LI. Most NFL fans remember that game better as the one where the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead. At the time, Shanahan was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, and he’s also basically been the fall guy for the loss (people love to blame him). The one thing about that game is that Shanahan’s offense absolutely diced up Belichick’s defense for the better part of three quarters, and ever since that game, I’ve been dying to see Shanahan go up against Belichick again. The fun twist in this game is that Shanahan will be going into New England with a quarterback who the Patriots originally drafted in Jimmy Garoppolo.
Belichick vs. Carroll (Week 2, Patriots at Seahawks): It’s starting to seem like every coach in the NFC West has a Super Bowl bone to pick with Belichick. This is the coaching matchup I’m most excited for, and that’s because Belichick-Carroll have managed to give us some of the most entertaining games of the past decade. The two coaches have met up three times since 2012 and every one of those games has been bonkers.
Back in Russell Wilson’s rookie year of 2012, the Seahawks beat the Patriots 24-23 after Wilson threw a 46-yard touchdown pass with under 90 seconds left to play. The next meeting between the two teams came in Super Bowl XLIX, which most fans remember as the game where the Carroll didn’t give the ball to Marshawn. It’s been five years since that 28-24 win by the Patriots and fans are still baffled that Beast Mode didn’t get the ball.
The good news for Carroll is that his decision was eventually completely overshadowed by the fact that the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, so he should probably send a thank you card to Shanahan for that.
In the third game between Carroll and Belichick, the Seahawks beat the Patriots 31-24 after Wilson threw a 15-yard touchdown pass with just 4:24 left to play. These two teams don’t play often, which is a shame, because Carroll vs. Belichick might be the most exciting coaching rivalry in the NFL. In a weird twist, Carroll was the last coach of the Patriots before Belichick was hired in 2000.
McVay vs. Pederson (Week 2, Rams at Eagles): After this game, we’ll finally know who the better coach is between McVay and Pederson and the long national debate started by our very own Sean Wagner-McGough will finally be over (Wagner-McGough ranked McVay ahead of Pederson in his top 10 coaches list that came out last week).