The 2021 season brings two heavy favorites and an uneven contender distribution, with the AFC presenting one of the deepest contender arrays in years and the NFC landscape not as complex. Here are some completely accurate predictions for the NFL's 102nd season.
The Bills added pass-rushing enhancements and Emmanuel Sanders to a proven nucleus. Although left tackle Dion Dawkins' COVID-19 hospitalization concerns, there is little not to like here. Josh Allen's monster ceiling will keep Buffalo atop this division, and having Matt Milano back for a full season will help a defense that underperformed (12th in DVOA) in 2020. The Dolphins' offensive line shuffling undercuts their wide receiver additions, as do the hires of the third and fourth offensive coordinators of the Brian Flores era. Equipped with an improved O-line and weaponry supporting Zach Wilson, the Jets entertain amid another rebuild.
In the AFC North's 20th season, the Browns complete the division champion cycle. The Steelers (nine titles), Ravens (six), and Bengals (four) bring more questions -- the Bengals' issues more than enough to disqualify them in this race -- than the retooled Browns. Cleveland threw resources at its 25th-ranked defense (DVOA) and when in nickel, might have nine new starters. This and not tampering with a deep receiving corps, an all-time backfield, and perhaps the NFL's top O-line creates a true February threat. The Steelers' youthful O-line, conversely, will interfere with Najee Harris' rise and spell trouble for Ben Roethlisberger's age-39 season.
The Texans will not care if they complete a one-win season, while the Jaguars' Urban Meyer hire invites earned scrutiny as Trevor Lawrence's career begins. At their best, the Colts are the division's most well-rounded team. But T.Y. Hilton's injury, the lack of surefire edge-rushing answers, and Carson Wentz's myriad issues provide too many obstacles. Indianapolis will be a threat to Tennessee, which has the division's best QB (among those who will play) and Julio Jones as support. Derrick Henry needs more plays off, and the Titan defense may not be sufficiently upgraded. But Ryan Tannehill and Co. skate by in the AFC's worst division.
The Broncos and Chargers improved, perhaps significantly, and the Chiefs' widely praised O-line overhaul involves three rookie or de facto rookie (after right tackle Lucas Niang's 2020 opt-out) starters. Frank Clark may also be suspended after his two-arrest offseason. Kansas City still has the game's best player, and the Patrick Mahomes-Travis Kelce-Tyreek Hill trio will still be enough to stave off Justin Herbert. It is impossible to trust Raiders personnel moves. Las Vegas' O-line pivot may disrupt Derek Carr's quiet progression. While three semi-live underdogs reside here, K.C. becomes the first team to win six straight AFC West titles.
Ryan Fitzpatrick enjoys a sturdier defensive safety net, but that might not be enough to account for Dak Prescott's re-emergence. In bad QB seasons for both Dallas and Washington, the Cowboys finished with six wins despite ceding the most points in team history. Washington won seven and ranked second defensively. Prescott's return coupled with an easier schedule than the gauntlet of quality QBs on Washington's docket should be enough for the Cowboys, though Dallas' O-line depth and, obviously, its defense send warning signs. In an odd transition, the Eagles could be back in this mix in 2022. Three first-round picks may await.
Aaron Rodgers mentioned 2020's "The Last Dance" on multiple occasions during his turbulent offseason, and the notorious grudge holder likely is not mending fences with Packers management. He pushed to make 2022 the year the Packers trade him, and Davante Adams -- the Scottie Pippen here -- is on a Packers-friendly deal going into a contract year. Like the '98 Bulls, the Packers are stacked. They will survive this division, despite what should be a better Vikings defense and a non-depressing Bears QB situation. In a down NFC, however, Minnesota and Chicago will have a say in which teams wear white in January.
The Buccaneers will win the NFC South for the first time since their Jeff Garcia-led 2007 season. It probably will not be that close. Tampa Bay completed the most thorough contender-retention effort in the free agency era and added Gio Bernard and first-round pick Joe Tryon Shoyinka to the mix. O.J. Howard will step back in as weapon No. 7 or 8 for Tom Brady. We should see less of the Bucs' road whites in these playoffs. Atlanta finished minus-18 last season but went 4-12. Their secondary, however, will force Matt Ryan into more shootouts. Carolina's weaponry aside, the team has O-line concerns (headlined by journeyman Cam Erving's left tackle gig).
The 2013 NFC West, the race that ended with Richard Sherman ranting to Erin Andrews, may be the best division assembled . This year's NFC West will rival it. Each team has playoff cases, though the Cardinals are a solid team in a bad spot, and three now use the Shanahan-Kubiak-McVay offense after the Seahawks' Shane Waldron hire. The Rams lost Waldron, DC Brandon Staley, and other assistants. Their depth remains poor, but the 49ers and Seahawks are banking on questionable cornerback crews. Still, this division oozed star power before Matthew Stafford, J.J. Watt, and Trey Lance's arrivals. If Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald stay healthy, the Rams can pack home blues for Round 1.
Good teams will miss these AFC playoffs. The Chargers will again face sobering home-field atmospheres, but Justin Herbert and an O-line retool that may be better than the Chiefs' effort will net them a berth. They benefit from matchups with the Texans, Giants, and Eagles. The Broncos' fourth-place schedule brings Jets, Jags, and Lions matchups. While Teddy Bridgewater is not Aaron Rodgers, the cautious QB ranked 17th in QBR last season and has a deep weaponry stable at all three skill spots. Denver's defense boasts depth and a high ceiling. This will be enough for the Broncos' first post-Peyton Manning playoff berth, raising the stakes for next year's Rodgers decision.
Lamar Jackson's Ravens have been one of the safest AFC contenders. But the dynamic QB's top receivers missed much of training camp. First-rounder Rashod Bateman is down until at least October. Jackson's unvaccinated status, like that of Carson Wentz and Kirk Cousins, also adds an unnecessary complication for the Ravens, who are down their first- and third-string running backs. Baltimore's late-season offensive resurgence came almost exclusively against bad defenses. The Ravens' own proven defense aside, there just may be many issues to overcome here against a tough schedule in a loaded AFC.
Cam Newton threw eight TD passes in 15 starts, and the Patriots lacked offensive firepower and a reliable pass rush. New England still limped to seven wins. Against a schedule that includes the Texans, Jaguars, the NFC South, and their customary two Jets dates, the Pats will return to the playoffs. While the team will rely on two tackles with concerning health histories ( Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown), it features a strong run game and talent everywhere on defense. This should be enough to help Mac Jones acclimate and account for Stephon Gilmore's six PUP list-mandated absences.
New rebuilds are taking place in three NFC cities -- Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia -- and other East and North teams outside Wisconsin have issues. The Cardinals could threaten to give the NFC West the first divisional postseason sweep, but both they and the Vikings must tangle with that division. The Saints' schedule is friendlier, and in a year in which they appeared poised to take a step back, circumstances will keep them afloat. Sean Payton and a proven O-line should buoy Jameis Winston during Michael Thomas' hiatus, and Bradley Roby's addition will aid a defense that has been an upper-crust unit for four years.
The start of Deshaun Watson's Houston farewell (non-)season will be awkward, but if/once a Houston grand jury indicts the embattled QB, the NFL should place him on the commissioner's exempt list to move the Texans out of this odd spot. The Texans will hang onto Watson until 2022, but other trades will commence to further weaken this year's team. The slew of mid-level vets GM Nick Caserio acquired will become trade bait and net the Texans' late-round picks. This plus the Watson haul and 2022's No. 1 overall pick will finally allow this franchise to rebuild. Having Houston on this year's schedule will be an advantage, particularly late in the year.
Voters have not named Payton Coach of the Year since his first Saints season when Drew Brees was an uncertain commodity coming off an injury. Brees' presence made Payton's award roads more difficult. Brees' retirement, historic cap trouble, and the team being forced to start its season away from Louisiana due to Hurricane Ida present challenges for Payton. But this is one of the top offensive coaches in NFL history. A thin NFC field opens the door for Jameis Winston's reintroduction to take on greater relevance, and Payton can absolutely steer the Saints back to the playoffs.
Though the Cowboys' 6-10 finish was just two games worse than their 2019 record, the somewhat accurate perception they cratered post-Dak's injury matters. Prescott guiding Dallas back to the playoffs will allow him to coast to this award. A host of defenders should be considered. Von Miller, Chandler Jones, Nick Bosa, Derwin James, and Danielle Hunter are among them . But excepting Eric Berry's cancer recovery, no defender has won this award since Dallas D-end Greg Ellis in 2007. This, and the Giants' bottom-tier O-line hindering Saquon Barkley, clears the runway for more Prescott publicity.
Rookie QBs who take their teams to the playoffs have lost this award. Cam Newton beat out Andy Dalton in 2011; Percy Harvin outflanked Mark Sanchez in 2009. But Trevor Lawrence will need some big stats if he is going to keep Jones from winning this if he guides the Pats back to the postseason. Newton's Pats successor will follow in the footsteps of Prescott, Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan, and Ben Roethlisberger by winning this award for a playoff team.
Since Charles Woodson put together a Heisman season and a Defensive Rookie of the Year slate back-to-back 23 years ago, only two DBs have won this award -- Marcus Peters and Marshon Lattimore. Denver's Pat Surtain II looms, being set to play multiple positions for an improved unit. But the Cowboys gave up a franchise-record 473 points last season. Parsons helping the cause will persuade voters. The first-round pick has commandeered a starting linebacker job. He possesses a versatile skill set and an immediate opportunity for the NFL's highest-profile team. That is a tough combo to beat.
Bosa finished behind only T.J. Watt in pressures last season, accumulating 45, despite playing only 12 games. New Chargers head coach Brandon Staley will go back-to-back with this award, after having then-Rams pupil Aaron Donald win it last season. The Bolts will need Melvin Ingram's replacement Uchenna Nwosu to provide sufficient auxiliary rush capabilities, but Bosa will deliver his best season for this rising team.
With the vast toolbox the Buccaneers have given the all-time great, he can do enough to move into the statistical realm of Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. While Brady might not outflank either rival for sheer numbers, voters will see a 44-year-old quarterback start a full season for the first time in NFL history and be swayed in a close race. No QB can match Brady for weapons. And after he missed the Pro Bowl during what turned into his seventh Super Bowl-winning slate, it is not hard to see voters giving Brady a fourth MVP -- moving him into second place all-time -- after he leads the Bucs to their first No. 1 seed in 19 years.
Seeds: 1. Chiefs; 2. Bills; 3. Browns; 4. Titans; 5. Chargers; 6. Patriots; 7. Broncos
Wild-card round: Bills over Broncos; Browns over Patriots; Chargers over Titans
Divisional round: Chiefs over Chargers; Browns over Bills
A Week 5 Chiefs win over the Bills gives them the No. 1 seed on a head-to-head tiebreaker between the 13-4 teams, and Josh Allen navigates Vic Fangio's bevy of zones in Round 1. After Justin Herbert built on his rookie season, the Chargers upset the Titans. A balanced Browns team ends Mac Jones' run, and Buffalo's run-defense issues emerge against Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt a week later. Andy Reid's bye-week credentials help a depleted Chiefs team go 2-1 against the Bolts.
Seeds: 1. Buccaneers; 2. Packers; 3. Rams; 4. Cowboys; 5. 49ers; 6. Saints; 7. Seahawks
Wild-card round: Packers over Seahawks; Rams over Saints; 49ers over Cowboys
Divisional round: Bucs over 49ers; Packers over Rams
The Packers' cozier division route gives them the edge on the Rams, but the teams book a second-round rematch. Dallas' defense cannot hold up against Trey Lance and a healthier 49ers team. Tampa Bay's wideouts win enough matchups San Francisco's embattled cornerbacks in Round 2 when the Packers -- with David Bakhtiari healthy post-Achilles tear -- hand Matthew Stafford another Lambeau Field loss.
Not as healthy as they were when they beat the Browns to start the season, the Chiefs cannot contain the Chubb-Hunt tandem in the Arrowhead Stadium rematch. Cleveland GM Andrew Berry's full-scale defensive overhaul protects his team against a Patrick Mahomes onslaught, and Baker Mayfield enjoys a greater margin for error on this day against his superior ex-Big 12 rival. In the matchup of John Dorsey nuclei, it is the Berry-Kevin Stefanski power duo that pushes the Browns to their first Super Bowl.
Rodgers' second straight spite season rolls to Tampa, where his improved squad moves past a decade-long barrier. The Buccaneers are unable to overcome a mediocre Tom Brady night in this meeting -- doubling as the 22nd-year veteran's 15th conference title tilt. Bakhtiari helps prevent the Bucs from another edge-rushing clinic in this matchup. Green Bay's deeper receiving cadre wins the battle against Tampa corners, and a more aggressive Matt LaFleur does enough to silence detractors and turn his third NFC championship appearance into the Packers' first Super Bowl berth in 11 years.
Nearly a year after his acclaimed "Jeopardy!"-hosting stint, Rodgers stops through Los Angeles again and collects his second Super Bowl ring. In a rematch of the 1965 NFL title game, the Packers see their five-deep receiver stable outpace the Browns' run game. While Chubb caps off a dominant postseason with a fourth quality outing, Mayfield is unable to match Rodgers late in a 34-24 Green Bay conquest. This unexpected happy ending puts Rodgers, naturally the MVP of this game, in a tougher spot regarding his future and opens the door wider to an 18th season with the Packers.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.