2021 NFL Preview: 11 storylines to track, and the 11 games that will test them

I say this every year, but I can legitimately say that I am more excited for this NFL season than I’ve ever been for a football kickoff. Both of my teams, the Ravens and Cowboys, have reason for optimism after uneven 2020 seasons. Beyond those two, though, there’s plenty of intrigue and must-watch action to go around the league.

Need to keep track of the major storylines to watch? Here are 11 that will shape the 2021 season, and a pivotal game for each of them that will put their respective storyline to the test.

  • Single Digits Spread, 17th Game Give NFL Updated Look

The evolution of the NFL continued this offseason, though the major changes invoked varying opinions from the players. The guys on the perimeter and in the trenches are over the moon about the updated number changes that allow single digits to be worn by position groups other than kickers, punters and quarterbacks. Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54 -> 9), Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen (48 -> 6) and Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette (28 -> 7) absorbed penalties of up to six figures just to buy out inventory of their jerseys and pave the way for immediate switches this season, while Atlanta tight end Kyle Pitts (No. 8) and Denver corner Patrick Surtain (No. 2) are taking single digits for their rookie years. The changes won’t make much of a difference on the box score, but aesthetically I can’t wait to see the fastest and hardest-hitting players wearing just a digit.

On the other hand, players aren’t exactly over the moon about the more prominent change — a 17th regular season game. NFL schedule makers added an additional interconference game to each team’s slate, a prudent money-making move but one that raises concerns about increased injury risk. It’ll take calibration on the part of football enthusiasts to make sense of the final records, too, as the connotation of an 8-8 team is nearly impossible this year (no complaints from me). 

Pivotal Game: Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs, Week 9 — An interconference game we wouldn’t have seen in any previous season’s scheduling structure, this duel between Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes could very well live up to the hype.

  • New York Football Teams Itching for Progress

In addition to sharing a city name and a stadium, the Giants and Jets have shared the distinction of being the worst two teams in football over the past five years. Neither are in true win-now situations, but the action in MetLife Stadium will still have high stakes this season.

The Giants are closer to contention, having almost swiped the NFC East division title in head coach Joe Judge’s first season. The return of prolific running back Saquon Barkley should give fans reason for optimism, and the additions of Kenny Golladay and rookie Kadarius Toney infuse excitement in the passing game. The question is whether Daniel Jones, entering his third season at the helm, can take the next step and establish himself as a franchise quarterback. If not, New York might look for another option next offseason. 

The Gang Green just drafted the guy they hope becomes the face of the franchise in BYU gunslinger Zach Wilson. But Year One is gonna be rough. The Bills are coming off an AFC Championship appearance, Miami nearly made the playoffs and Bill Belichick is still running the show in New England. Wilson’s supporting cast is lackluster at best, and a brand-new coaching staff led by former Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a first-time head coach, is unproven. 

Given that both teams share the nation’s largest media market, fans and commentators will put the heat on regardless of the team’s records. At the very least, clarity about each team’s direction would give either franchise something they’ve lacked the last decade. 

Pivotal Game: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets, Week 8; New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, Week 5 — These two first-half games pit their respective New York team against a comparable opponent and indicate if either team can turn the corner, or if they’ll show more of the same.

  • Prescott, McCaffrey Returning to Action

Fantasy football crazies might want to pay attention to this one. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was putting together a season for the ages before a brutal ankle injury in Week 5 ended his season (and my appetite during my birthday dinner). He’ll be back in Dallas thanks to a diligent rehab and a four-year, $160 million contract, and the offense should be as high-flying as ever with receiver trio Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup on the outside and a slimmed-down Ezekiel Elliott providing balance in the backfield. Prescott’s return alone should establish Dallas in the NFC East race after a nightmare 2020, though expectations in Big D, as always, are sky-high.

2019 fantasy MVP Christian McCaffrey also figures to shake up the NFC playoff picture. Carolina didn’t immediately sink when McCaffrey was relegated to the sideline, but the season devolved into a dumpster fire by year’s end. With a new quarterback in Sam Darnold and promising returns from coach Matt Rhule’s first year, a Panther team with a healthy McCaffrey could certainly take the second spot in the NFC South this year and factor into the Wild Card race. More importantly, watching CMC and Saquon Barkley tear up defenses as rushers and receivers every Sunday will restore balance to the gameday experience.

Pivotal Game: Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys, Week 4 — Let’s go with the matchup between these stars’ teams. For Prescott, full health should be the goal by this point in the season, and CMC will have had time to get up to speed with new quarterback Sam Darnold.

  • Aaron Rodgers Aims For Title No. 2

2020 MVP Aaron Rodgers was the story of the offseason, wavering between holding out over contract and team management disputes and returning back to the only NFL team he’s called home. Ultimately, the two sides reached an agreement that will keep Rodgers in Packer green and gold for the 2021 season, but with no guarantees after that. The ultimatum gives a Green Bay team that has made — and lost — the last two NFC Championship games immense pressure to win the Big One. Despite the Packers’ status as a Super Bowl contender the past two decades under two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Green Bay has just one ring to show for it. And no matter where you fall on backup option Jordan Love, this could certainly be the Packers’ best shot for a while.

I like the Packers’ chances to come out of the NFC. The 37-year-old Rodgers doesn’t appear to be wearing down physically or mentally, having just thrown 48 touchdown passes and hosted a couple weeks of Jeopardy. The roster is Super Bowl quality, but surviving the feisty NFC field will take another career year from Rodgers and the defense to show up when it matters.

Pivotal Game: Green Bay Packers at Baltimore Ravens, Week 15 — Rodgers against the vaunted Baltimore secondary will be a championship test and possible playoff tune-up.

  • Can Derrick Henry Keep Up the Pace?

Derrick Henry followed up a standout 2019 by one-upping himself, becoming just the eighth running back to make the 2K club with 2,000 rushing yards. The feat might become more common in the near future now that the season has expanded to 17 games, but Henry’s highlight reel will always be jaw-dropping. Henry’s unbelievable combination of Lamar Jackson-level speed and locomotive power tore through defenses during the regular season and lifted the Titans to another playoff berth, though the numbers were less gaudy in Tennessee’s Wild Card round loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

So we’re back to the same question — will Henry, in an age of declining running back usage, do it again? Two straight 300-carry seasons take a toll on anyone, even a superhero like Henry. If he can, the Titans should be able to run away with a division title in the mediocre AFC South and challenge the top dogs in the conference come January. If not, the magic Tennessee conjured in their 2019 run to the AFC Championship game may have finally run its course. 

Pivotal Game: Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Rams, Week 9 — This Super Bowl XXIV rematch will pit Henry against one of the best defenses last season. If he can run over Aaron Donald, there may be no one left to stop him.

  • New Era in New Orleans

2020 marked the final season for legendary quarterback Drew Brees, one that culminated in resounding disappointment in the NFC Divisional Round. After those losses, the Saints face an uncertain future, with uncertainty at the quarterback position making the Saints arguably the NFL’s most intriguing team heading into the season.

Coach Sean Payton has yet to commit to a direction for the post-Brees era, leaving New Orleans the opportunity to test out two talented quarterbacks. But as the saying goes, having two starting quarterbacks really means that you have none, and there’s a solid chance that this experiment falls flat on its face. In one corner stands Taysom Hill, the quarterback-tight end hybrid with a $20 million cap hit and no precedent in NFL history. In the other corner stands Jameis Winston, the former No. 1 overall pick and the player who more closely fits the traditional quarterback mold (though he by no means is your typical quarterback). Both have shown flashes but no indication that they can live up to their promise as franchise guys, and Payton’s lack of commitment to one path could derail the Saints’ playoff hopes. The Saints are betting on a strong defense, proven coaching and the marvel that is running back Alvin Kamara to keep them afloat in the NFC playoff picture. Year 1 of the post-Brees era should be one to remember. 

Pivotal Game: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints, Week 13 — The Saints’ quarterback room may have imploded by this point, but if not, this game might help determine how the NFC Wild Card race shakes out. 

  • Megawatt Rookies Aim For Starting Jobs

After Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert broke the rookie passing touchdown record last season, a couple teams looked to the draft for their own opportunity to draft an immediate, transcendent superstar to groom. Each of the 2021 Draft’s five first-round quarterbacks should have an opportunity to see the field this season, with one possibly factoring into the Super Bowl chase.

The draft’s first two picks, Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Jets quarterback Zach Wilson, should suit up immediately for their respective franchises, though the pressure to make the playoffs won’t be in full-force in their rookie campaigns. Instead, look to Chicago’s Justin Fields and New England’s Mac Jones to be the rare rookie quarterbacks to push their teams from the playoff periphery to Wild Card bids. Fields adds a dual-threat edge and College Football Playoff pedigree to Chicago’s perennially tumultuous quarterback room, while Jones, a more traditional pocket passer, slots in as Tom Brady’s successor and a reason for optimism in the Patriots’ attempt to return to the playoffs. 

But the rookie to watch is in San Francisco, where third overall pick Trey Lance, a surprise selection this spring, could dethrone Jimmy Garoppolo as the 49ers’ starter and take the reins of a bona fide Super Bowl contender. The 49ers’ defense is loaded enough to win the NFC West on its own, but the fit between Lance’s athleticism and coach Kyle Shanahan’s dynamic system should have fans in California dreaming of a return to the Super Bowl. If San Francisco was to finish off the job they started in 2019 with Lance as the starter, the North Dakota State product would go where no rookie QB has gone before — a Super Bowl victory. Buy stock on Lance now.

Pivotal Game: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks, Week 13 — At this point, the quarterback for the rest of the season will likely be established, meaning this divisional matchup could reveal the 49ers’ intended Super Bowl blueprint — and if it could succeed.

  • Sky’s the Limit for SoFi Stadium’s Tenants

Last season was technically the groundbreaking year for the new Los Angeles palace SoFi Stadium, but 2021 is really when the fun should begin. Not only will fans be welcomed into SoFi this year, but the wins might, too. Both tenants, the Rams in the NFC and Chargers in the AFC, have reason for abounding optimism and could be dark horse Super Bowl contenders.

Sean McVay’s Rams made the biggest splash of any team this offseason, trading away former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff for 2009 No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford. Switching out Goff, who was benched last playoffs in favor of John Wofford and underperformed his massive contract, for the well-respected Stafford could lead to fireworks and an NFC West title. The Rams hope that adding Stafford to a team that already made the Divisional Round last year can give them the boost that Tom Brady gave the Buccaneers last season, but Stafford is no Brady — he has yet to win a playoff game and hasn’t shown up in primetime games. Still, until the Seahawks can support Russell Wilson and the 49ers can find a quarterback, the Rams should be division favorites in the most loaded division in football.

Projecting the Chargers as Super Bowl contenders might seem like a bit of a stretch, but the pieces are there for first-time head coach Brandon Staley to put it all together quickly. Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert surpassed all expectations with a record-breaking campaign with the league’s worst offensive line. That unit has been shored up with both Pro Bowlers and high draft picks (a Northwestern Wildcat!), while a defense that features All-Pro talents Joey Bosa and Derwin James work under one of the league’s most brilliant and ascending defensive minds in Staley. The Chiefs’ reign atop the AFC West may seem like a given, but the Chargers are a dangerous matchup for any AFC team.

Pivotal Game: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Los Angeles Rams, Week 3; Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Chargers, Week 11 — For the Rams, a contest against the reigning NFC champions will give Matthew Stafford an opportunity to play against a primetime opponent with all the pressure on him. Herbert’s Chargers will try to knock off a contender on the decline, Pittsburgh, as the Bolts try to jumpstart a playoff push of their own.

  • Cleveland, Buffalo Solidifying Super Bowl Contention

The 21st century hasn’t been kind to old school powers Cleveland and Buffalo, but 2020 gave them the opportunity to shine and break the mold of mediocrity. Both squads won games in the AFC side of the playoff bracket and figure to be right up there with Kansas City and Baltimore in contention for this year’s Lamar Hunt trophy.

Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen broke out in a major way in 2020, boosting his completion percentage up a couple notches and leading one of the league’s most fearsome aerial attacks (remember the Bills totally neglecting to run against Seattle?). Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is somehow still in town, along with All Pro receiver Stefon Diggs. The Bills became the first team to knock the Patriots off their AFC East pedestal since the Dolphins in 2008 and return this year as the top dogs in the division.

Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield inspires less confidence than his 2018 draft mate, but the Browns’ roster has the Dawg Pound salivating. From pass rush to offensive line to aerial attack to ground game, the Browns have every base covered and are banking on defensive improvement to launch them to their first AFC North title ever. Myles Garrett is a perennial DPOY candidate, and rookie Greg Newsome (Northwestern Wildcat!) could bring in hardware by the year’s end as well.

Pivotal Game: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs, Week 5; Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens, Week 12 — A rematch of the AFC Championship in the first, a rematch of last year’s best regular season game in the second. Both contests figure to be must-watch TV between the AFC’s top four contenders.

  • Lamar Jackson.

Does this guy even need an introduction? I’ll give him one anyway, because few things give me more joy in sports writing than ranting about Lamar Jackson’s greatness. This guy has reached the playoffs three times, has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons as a quarterback (he has two of the three all-time such seasons) and won the MVP award unanimously in 2019, all before turning 25. And if I couldn’t love him any more than I already do, he gave my sister a football at Ravens Training Camp earlier in August.

Still, there’s work to do and Jackson knows it. A revamped offensive line and added weapons on the perimeter should boost the aerial attack, a key once the weather turns cold, and Jackson himself knows that accuracy and consistency will be required to take another step forward in his evolution. And after entering the AFC as one of the favorites to come out of the conference, the Ravens will be somewhat of a sleeper pick behind Kansas City, Buffalo and resurgent Cleveland. Question marks are there, but the Ravens’ combination of an elite defense, tested coaching, a winning culture, and a transcendent superstar behind center make them impossible to be counted out. 

Pivotal Game: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns, Week 14 — If the Ravens can come away with a brutal three-game stretch against the Browns, then Steelers, then Browns again with at least two wins, they’ll have proven they have the resilience and talent to outlast AFC opponents in January. 

  • Bucs are Going for Two — Will They Succeed?

Picking a repeat Super Bowl champion is usually a foolish call. No team has returned to the top since the New England Patriots in 2004.

Then again, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are all about making history. The Bucs became the first team to play in a Super Bowl hosted in their home stadium and then won that game over the reigning champion Chiefs 31-9. Quarterback Tom Brady found his footing by playoff time and made the most of the NFL’s most explosive offensive arsenal. And after all of that, Tampa Bay has the most continuity of any Super Bowl champ in decades thanks to stellar roster management.

While the Bucs may not have seemed like the favorite to come out of the NFC side of the bracket as a five seed when the playoffs started last year, they’re on their own tier in the NFC as the 2021 season gets underway. Division rival and playoff foil New Orleans loses its leader in Drew Brees and will have star Michael Thomas out for a good chunk of the season, while NFC Championship opponent Green Bay has questions on defense and the matter of Aaron Rodgers’ “last dance” to account for. The NFC West has four teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, but each team has work to do to earn the moniker of contender. That leaves Tampa Bay, with arguably the league’s fiercest defense to go along with Brady’s offense, as the prohibitive Super Bowl favorite.

A slow start could be in the cards for the Buccaneers given last year’s trajectory and Brady’s quiet Septembers in years past, but Tampa Bay is fully loaded in their attempt to “go for two” and gives Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs a worthy rival.

Pivotal Game: Buffalo Bills at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Week 14 — Let’s see the Bucs take on another Super Bowl contender. Brady playing against his former AFC East division rival Josh Allen should make for an entertaining contest.

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