It’s late May on the NFL calendar. The Draft is over, and its been sliced and diced by everybody. Training camp doesn’t start for another two months. The first pre-season game is on August 2nd, and the regular season won’t commence until September 6th. In short, we have a long way to go until we’re watching football again.
At least for that kind of football.
We’re now within three weeks of the other kind of football’s showpiece event, the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Conveniently for us, there are 32 teams in the NFL and 32 countries vying for the World Cup title beginning on June 14th.
I’m taking on the task of drawing a parallel from each NFL team to each country. Some of it will be historical, some of it having to do with how the NFL teams are looking now compared to the squads preparing for the World Cup, and more.
If you’re an American who’s not sure who to cheer for this summer after the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, the answer might be lying beneath the surface of your NFL team.
We’ll organize this division by division here, starting in the AFC.
Let’s kick off.
New England Patriots – Germany:
Let’s not overthink this. These are two absolute machines in their respective sports. Germany will enter 2018 as the holders of the World Cup, having claimed their fourth title in 2014. The Patriots came within a whisker of their sixth Super Bowl last February in Minneapolis, and there’s no reason to think they won’t be in contention for as long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are in Foxboro. This was a no brainer.
Buffalo Bills – Denmark:
There are no Lombardi Trophies to speak of in Buffalo, but what they do have is a run of four consecutive AFC Championships from the early 1990s unmatched in NFL history. Shortly thereafter, they began a run of almost two decades out of the postseason before finally breaking their drought last season.
They’re still on the path to rekindling the glory days of the 90s. Denmark will be looking to do the same this summer, with the magic of their 1992 European Championship win and quarterfinal run at the 1998 World Cup spurring them on.
Miami Dolphins – South Korea:
I see two teams here where we don’t now what they are exactly. Year one under Adam Gase in Miami was 10-6 and a playoff berth, and year two saw the record get flipped as they were stuck at home in January. Are this actual team’s identity the 2016 one, 2017, or somewhere in the middle? I’m not sure if South Korea is the team that badly underwhelmed at the 2014 World Cup, or the one that got through a group including Argentina and Nigeria in 2010.
New York Jets – England:
Getting constantly hyped before every season or major tournament as a candidate to win it all by the fans and media even though they haven’t accomplished anything relevant since the 60s? Yep, that’s the Jets, and England, down to a tee.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Brazil:
If you meet a Steelers fan anywhere, the first thing they’ll remind you of is that they’re six Super Bowl rings are more than any other team. A similar story comes out of Brazil with their five World Cups. In recent years though, both have a story of some brilliant players that haven’t quite reached the success of the teams in the past. The recent postseason failures of the Steelers share common ground with Brazil’s shortcomings in the knockout stages at the last three World Cups.
Baltimore Ravens – Japan:
There is very little about this Baltimore team right now to get you inspired. Their regular season record in the 80 games since they won the Super Bowl is an even 40-40. Last season was a 9-7 campaign that lacked individual playmakers on offense. Unfortunately for the Japanese, I’m not sure if they have the playmakers to do a lot in this tournament either.
Cincinnati Bengals – Serbia:
Serbia has a pretty rough disciplinary record at their last two World Cups, picking up three red cards in six games. It’s an obvious match for Vontaze Burfict and the Bengals.
Cleveland Browns – Saudi Arabia:
This is the World Cup and there’s always the potential for something extraordinary, but at least on paper, Saudi Arabia looks like the worst team in this field. Most bookmakers would agree with that; many of them have Saudi Arabia at 1,000-1 to win the tournament right now. The bright side is if they can find one win, they’ll at least have a better finish than the Browns.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Belgium:
Hat tip to my colleague David Howell for giving me a push on this one. The Jaguars are in a little bit of a weird place right now. They just came off their best season in decades, finishing as AFC South champions and coming within minutes of reaching their first Super Bowl. But there are questions about if Blake Bortles is capable of even getting them back there again, let alone going the next step the fan base craves.
Some Belgium fans might feel the same way about being in the trap of success after reaching the quarterfinals in their last two major tournaments, but that there are still new heights to be reached.
Tennessee Titans – Croatia:
All you have to do is look at some of the names in Croatia’s squad to at least get excited about watching them. Any midfield with the likes of Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić is going to be entertaining. I have a feeling if new head coach Mike Vrabel can get the offense down better than Mike Mularkey did, the Titans with Marcus Mariota under center could become a fun team to watch. A sophomore breakout from 2017 top five pick Corey Davis would further the cause greatly.
Indianapolis Colts – Peru:
It’s a real shame that Peru’s first World Cup appearance in 36 years could be a very short-lived one due to the absence of Paolo Guerrero. If anybody in the NFL knows about a focal point of the team not being able to play, it’s Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
Houston Texans – Australia:
Much like the Texans, the NFL’s youngest franchise, Australia is still bursting onto life as a fixture at the World Cup. The Texans came into the NFL in 2002, while Australia is only competing in their 5th World Cup, and four of those have come since 2006. These two are the newbies of the field in a lot of ways.
Kansas City Chiefs – Tunisia:
The upcoming tournament will be Tunisia’s fifth time at the World Cup. They failed to make it out of the first round in each of their first four. I feel like this is something Kansas City fans can relate to.
Los Angeles Chargers – Switzerland:
Even if neither of these teams have had overwhelming success through the years, there have always been some enjoyable individual players to watch. In Switzerland you can look for a guy like Xherdan Shaqiri to always keep you entertained. The Chargers have had Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson to do the same for the Bolts.
Oakland Raiders – Panama:
The Raiders are – for better or worse – entering the Jon Gruden era. Between his questionable draft and comments about advanced analytics, this season promises to be an adventure. I really have no idea what to expect from the Raiders. Panama’s first World Cup will commence this summer in Russia, and it’s hard to know what to expect from one of the tournament’s two newcomers.
Denver Broncos – Morocco:
For years now, Denver’s bread and butter has been a defense that stymies the opposition, and hoping that their offense can score just enough points to win. It got them all the way to a Super Bowl in 2016. Morocco did the same thing in World Cup Qualifying, conceding only one goal in eight matches, but only scoring 11 in those eight. Still, it was enough to get them on the plane to Russia.
Philadelphia Eagles – Spain:
Transitioning over to the NFC, we begin with the Super Bowl champions. After decades of having the choker label attached to them, they finally broke through and won their first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history last season. Spain had a similar stigma attached to them before they finally broke through by winning the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Dallas Cowboys – Colombia:
It’s a team built on young attacking players who kind of burst onto the scene out of nowhere recently. That could be the Cowboys with Ezekiel Elliot leading the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie 2016, or Colombia with James Rodriguez leading the World Cup in goals at his first tournament in 2014. Now it’s time for both teams to push on even further in 2018.
Washington Redskins – Russia:
The pressure is always on Washington as a team playing in a big eastern media market with plenty of riches in its history. However, the roster itself really isn’t good enough to warrant the expectations put on them. It’s not unrealistic to say they’ll take another step back next season after replacing Kirk Cousins with Alex Smith.
Russia is going to have all of the pressure in the world on them as the tournament hosts, but nothing about the squad suggests they’ll be able to make a run into the latter stages of the tournament. The situation could get dicey for them if things go south.
New York Giants – Nigeria:
Nigeria has historically always had some good players out wide who can stretch opposition defenses. At the 2014 World Cup it was Ahmed Musa playing on the wing and asking questions of opposing defenders. This lines up with what Odell Beckham Jr. does for the Giants down to a tee.
Minnesota Vikings – Iceland:
Is it not obvious? Iceland stunned everybody with a quarterfinal run at the 2016 European Championships despite having a population of around 300,000 people. The Viking Clap from their fans became synonymous with their entire miracle tournament. You’ll see a similar thing at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Detroit Lions – Iran:
Comparing them to what should be one of the weaker teams in the tournament would suggest I have something against Detroit. It’s not about the makeup of the team per say, but more about the lack of entertainment value you can extract from watching them. Watching the Jim Bob Cooter call screen pass after screen pass and dink and dunk his way down the field with what was at the time the most expensive quarterback in NFL history was painful. The total lack of a running game just made watching the Lions play even more of a chore.
Chore would also be how I describe watching Iran at the 2014 World Cup with their defensive tactics and lack of firepower going forward. Hopefully the 2018 edition of Iran can add a little more to the competition.
Green Bay Packers – Argentina:
Here we are with one of the teams who beat the aforementioned Iran in the 2014 World Cup, it’s the runner-ups from that competition Argentina. I was looking throughout the NFL for somebody to compare Lionel Messi to, and I finally settled on Aaron Rodgers.
The things these two men can do on their respective football fields are simply unbelievable. There is just so much to like from both. Lionel Messi’s raw skills are unbelievable. He’s a magician out there. Both are capable of pulling something out of the bag for their team in moments of desperation, especially Rodgers with his knack for the Hail Mary.
We’re all privileged to see these two playing in their primes at a level that has rarely been achieved in the history of their sports.
Chicago Bears – Sweden:
For decades Sweden has been a team at the World Cup who doesn’t always win, but they’re rarely crushed. They have always been a difficult team to break down or embarrass. In their 30 World Cup matches since 1970, they’ve only loss 11 of them, and nine of those were by one goal. You might beat them, but you’ll rarely crush them.
The Bears have lost 24 games in the last two seasons, and 13 of them were by single digits. These teams can keep the games close. Now it’s about translating that into wins.
New Orleans Saints – France:
Beyond the obvious connection of New Orleans being a city with an enormous French culture, this makes some practical sense. Both of these teams are extremely talented with the capability to win it all soon. There are a few spots where the team could improve, but the Saints are one of the most well rounded teams in the NFL, and they’re absolutely in win now mode. French fans will feel the same way about their chances at Russia 2018.
Carolina Panthers – Portugal:
Like Messi and Rodgers, I wanted to do justice to Cristiano Ronaldo by finding the right NFL star to pair him with. I’ve decided to go with Cam Newton. From the standard of their charisma, style, and how they celebrate, the two are very comparable. I think rather than the technical side of the game that Messi and Rodgers excel at, these two like to use brute strength and power to dominate opponents.
Ronaldo can do things on the pitch physically that others can’t dream of in terms of his pace and power. Cam Newton is 6’5”, 245 pounds, and pretty much runs people over in short yardage situations. I feel like if you could do that in soccer, Ronaldo would do the same.
Atlanta Falcons – Mexico:
One way or another, it always ends in heartbreak for these two. It goes without saying how much January disappointment the Falcons have gone through over their history; more than half a century of failing to reach the ultimate goal of the Lombardi. Mexico has the most streak of any team in this tournament. Unbelievably, the Mexicans have been knocked out at the second round of the tournament at six consecutive World Cups.
That search for an elusive fifth game will carry on in 2018, while the Falcons will hope to get to the Super Bowl being hosted in their stadium this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Senegal:
It’s all about 2002 here. That’s the year both of these teams had their most famous run in history. The 2002 season is of course the one where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 12-4 en route to their only Super Bowl title in franchise history.
A few months prior to that, Senegal made serious waves at the World Cup in the Far East. It’s the only other World Cup they’ve qualified for to date, and they made it a memorable one by making a charge all the way to the quarterfinals. They came within a whisker of becoming the first African country to reach a World Cup semifinal, but it wasn’t to be. Still, that’s a team that will live forever in Senegal, just like the 2002 Buccaneers who are immortalized in Tampa Bay.
Los Angeles Rams – Poland:
On paper, it’s all there. This is a dream team for the Rams. Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald in the middle is going to be unblockable. Aqib Talb and Marcus Peters have joined a secondary that is threatening to become a no fly zone for opposing quarterbacks. Jared Goff progressed significantly in his sophomore year and is poised to make an even bigger jump, and he’ll have Todd Gurley to hand the ball off. This front office is trying to go all in on a Super Bowl run now.
2018 will probably be Poland’s all in tournament too. Their dominant striker and team captain Robert Lewandowski is in the prime of his career at age 29. Up and down the squad, it’s full of players who are in their primes, and the team as a whole plays an exciting game that will make it difficult for others.
I expect big things from both the Rams and Poland in the near future.
Seattle Seahawks – Uruguay:
I need to give an assist to my colleague and die hard Seahawks fan Joe Hulbert for helping me come up with this one. For years Seattle has been marked by a tough defense that will always make life difficult for the opponent, and a quarterback who loves to run around and make plays. Difficult is the word I think suits both of these teams well.
Nobody likes playing the Seahawks. It’s uncomfortable and you know you’re going to have to put in a full shift to beat them. The same can be said about handling Uruguay’s dynamic attack and tough defenders. It’s just an uncomfortable opponent to deal with.
Arizona Cardinals – Egypt:
No team in the NFL has their success or failure hinging more on one player than the Cardinals do with running back David Johnson. We saw how lifeless their offense became last season after he suffered his week one injury. Johnson can do it all, from rushing to receiving. To the same tune, I don’t think any player in the World Cup has his team’s fate resting more on his shoulders than Mo Salah does for Egypt. His play domestically this season has shattered all expectations and plenty of records, but now it’s time for him to deliver for his country.
San Francisco 49ers – Costa Rica:
By process of elimination you could tell who this was going to be just by who the only NFL teams and World Cup countries left were. I paired these two together because I think it’s all about using the established building blocks for both of them.
Costa Rica made it to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup despite being tipped by some as the worst team in the tournament, while the 49ers finally found their franchise quarterback after years in the dark. Both of these teams have a foundation in place for the future, and that should be very exciting for both sets of fans.