Tuesday, September 7, 2021

2021 NFL Preview

By Anthony Brancato

Predicted records in parentheses.

AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills (14-3) — With the Chiefs bedeviled by the dreaded Super Bowl Runner-Up Jinx, they are clearly the "heir apparent" to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots (10-7) — Of the 67 players who sat out last year due to COVID, eight play for them, which is four times the league average. That has to help them going into this season.

Miami Dolphins (8-9) — At 10-6 last year, they had the best record among the teams that did not make the playoffs — and over the last decade such teams have dropped from a combined 95-64-1 to a combined 70-90 the following year (what used to be known as the 20th Overall Pick Jinx now known as the 18th Overall Pick Jinx because the expansion of the playoffs that it made its debut last year). And Tua Tagovailoa does not inspire confidence.

New York Jets (4-13) — Will have both the league's second easiest schedule and will take the league's second biggest drop in strength of schedule from what every team played last season (behind only Philadelphia in both cases) using last season's records, which should lead to an improved record from last season's 2-14 finish. But how much of one?

AFC NORTH

Cleveland Browns (12-5) — One can pretty much throw a blanket across the top three teams in this division — and since they have an easier schedule than either the Steelers or the Ravens, the nod goes to them.

Baltimore Ravens (11-6) — Had the worst passing offense in the league last year — but they also had the league's best rushing offense, and their defense placed in the top 10 across the board — seventh overall, eighth against the run, and sixth against the pass. There or thereabouts.

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8) — Not only do they have the toughest schedule in the league, but they take the second biggest jump in strength of schedule in the league vis-a-vis 2020. And Big Ben's gettin' old.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-11) — Zac Taylor is lucky that he is working for the NFL's most patient organization. Six wins will keep him off the hot seat that some observers claim he's already on.

AFC SOUTH

Tennessee Titans (13-4) — Julio Jones is the missing link that transforms them from just another contending team into a Final Four team. They will go as far as their questionable defense can take them.

Indianapolis Colts (10-7) — If Carson Wentz stays healthy (and COVID-free), he will take them to the playoffs, and maybe then some. But that's a big if.

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-13) — Thank God for Houston.

Houston Texans (2-15) — This is an optimistic prediction for them. Their front office owes it to their fans to at least try — which in this case would mean signing Cam Newton, or even Colin Kaepernick.

AFC WEST

Kansas City Chiefs (11-6) — Only three of the last 27 Super Bowl runners-up have made it past the Elite Eight the following year (an Andy Reid-coached team — the Eagles — was one of them, in 2004-05) — and they won't make it four of the last 28 (Reid's Eagles went 6-10 the year after losing Super Bowl XXXIX to New England). They should win this underwhelming division for the sixth consecutive time though.

Los Angeles Chargers (9-8) — They're headed in the right direction, but they won't reach their destination yet — at least not this year.

Denver Broncos (8-9) — "Serviceable" is the perfect word with which to describe Teddy Bridgewater, who will open the season as their starting quarterback. But defense will need to step up after having ranked 21st in the league in yards allowed and 25th in points allowed a year ago.

Las Vegas Raiders (7-10) — And speaking of starting quarterbacks, Derek Carr is the "starting" quarterback on just about everybody's "All-Overrated" team, and their defense was even worse than Denver's in 2020, with respective rankings of 25th and 30th in yards and points allowed. No wonder they approached Chicago about a trade that would bring Khalil Mack back home (they traded him to the Bears three years ago in exchange for a draft-choice package headed by first-rounders in both 2019 and 2020).

NFC EAST

Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) — From 2008 through 2019, they had a 2-2 or worse preseason eight times (COVID wiped out the 2020 preseason) — and then had a winning regular season on all eight occasions, making the playoffs in seven of them (the sole exception was in 2014, when they followed up a 2-2 exhibition campaign with a 10-6 regular season, and while they did not make the playoffs, 7-8-1 Carolina did); by contrast, in the four winning preseasons they had over that span, they did not follow it up with a winning regular season in any of them. Furthermore, they have finished last in the division five times since 1999, and made the playoffs the following year all five times, of which four Elite Eights, two Final Fours, and a partridge in pear tree (in 2017). Finally, not only do they have the easiest schedule in the league, but they are taking the biggest drop in strength of schedule from what every team played last season, using last season's records.

Dallas Cowboys (8-9) — It all boils down to how healthy Dak Prescott is — and how much a promising draft class can improve a defense that was simply horrible last year, especially against the run.

Washington Football Team (7-10) — Moves up significantly in company, schedule-wise, after winning the division with a 7-9 record last season — and they hand the quarterbacking reins to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is 59-86-1 as a starter, and will turn 39 during the season.

New York Giants (5-12) — Both Joe Judge and Daniel Jones are on the hot seat, as Judge seems to be simply in over his head, while Jones is 8-18 as a starter.

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers (13-4) — Taking the biggest jump in the league in strength of schedule from what every team played last season, based on last season's records. In this division, they can afford to do that — but it will very likely doom them to a conference championship game at Raymond James Stadium, when they could not beat Tampa Bay on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field in last year's NFC title game.

Minnesota Vikings (10-7) — If they do not star-gaze at the break again the way they did last year (getting off to a 1-5 start), they should make the playoffs. But can Kirk Cousins beat over-.500 teams, as he would obviously need to do to get very far in the postseason? Cousins is 8-37 lifetime against teams that finished a season above .500.

Chicago Bears (7-10) — They're already having buyer's remorse after drafting an Ohio State quarterback in the first round, as Andy Dalton will begin the season as their starting quarterback. Matt Nagy could be endangered, despite having made the newly-diluted playoffs last season.

Detroit Lions (5-12) — Potentially better off with Jared Goff (44-30 as a starter) instead of Matthew Stafford (74-93-1 as a starter) at quarterback, especially with the two first-round draft picks they also got in the deal. But when are they ever gonna get a decent running game — tell me, quando, quando, quando?

NFC SOUTH

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (15-2) — With Drew Brees having retired, when they sit down to eat their Thanksgiving turkey, they will do so with the division title already clinched. But if they do make it to the Super Bowl again (extremely likely), the artificial turf of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles awaits them, not their own home field on which they won it last year.

New Orleans Saints (9-8) — As if losing Brees to retirement wasn't bad enough. Now they might lose several of their home games due to Hurricane Ida, the first one (against Green Bay in Week 1) already having been moved both outdoors and onto natural grass. Will have a hard time even managing a winning record after a 12-4 finish a year ago.

Atlanta Falcons (6-11) — Bad clock management and other mental errors contributed mightily to last year's 4-12 finish, but coaching change and 97-percentage-point drop in strength of schedule (only the Eagles and Jets take a steeper "Nestea plunge" in that regard) could lead to a better outcome this time around.

Carolina Panthers (5-12) — Chuba Hubbard was both the nation's leading ground gainer (2,094 yards) and scorer (21 touchdowns) two years ago at Oklahoma State, and could turn out to be the steal of the entire 2021 draft, taken in the fourth round after two leg injuries, neither of which were anything close to career-threatening, shortened his 2020 season to seven games. However, drafting him could serve as a signal as to how leery they are of Christian McCaffrey staying healthy going forward. As the youngest team in the NFL (median age = 24.2), they present as a team of the future — not the present.

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals (11-6) — Kliff Kingsbury, whose hiring was met by sneers from nearly all pundits two and a half years ago, will battle Philly's Nick Sirianni for Coach of the Year honors as he continues his team's gradual, Chuck Noll-like rise to contender status.

San Francisco 49ers (9-8) — Getting Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Bosa back from injuries must be worth something — as must their 60-percentage-point drop in strength of schedule. One of several teams in the "May or May Not" category when it comes to making the playoffs in the NFC.

Seattle Seahawks (8-9) — Three picks in the entire 2021 draft? As John McEnroe liked to say, you cannot be serious!

Los Angeles Rams (7-10) — Traded a young quarterback with a history of winning plus two first-round picks for an old quarterback with a history of losing, which will run their streak of years without a first-round pick to seven. George Allen would be proud — and they also lost four 2020 defensive starters to free agency.

PLAYOFFS (Home teams in CAPS)

AFC Wild Card: TENNESSEE over New England
...........................CLEVELAND over Indianapolis
...........................KANSAS CITY over Baltimore

NFC Wild Card: GREEN BAY over San Francisco
...........................New Orleans over ARIZONA
...........................PHILADELPHIA over Minnesota

AFC Semifinals: BUFFALO over Kansas City
............................TENNESSEE over Cleveland

NFC Semifinals: TAMPA BAY over New Orleans
............................GREEN BAY over Philadelphia

AFC Championship: BUFFALO over Tennessee

NFC Championship: TAMPA BAY over Green Bay

Super Bowl LVI: Buffalo over Tampa Bay

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