The 2021 NFL season kicks off tomorrow night with one of the most electric matchups I can recall from my time as a fan — Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers against Dak Prescott and my Dallas Cowboys (I just want the Boys to escape Florida without any major injuries, though a miracle would be nice, too). Ahead of the season, I continued my annual tradition of predicting all of the games — now 18 weeks worth of regular season action — and came up with an eerily similar Super Bowl prediction to my 2020 vision. Here’s my take on how the 2021 NFL season will play out.
AFC East Champion: Buffalo Bills, 12-5
Josh Allen is legit, the core of last year’s AFC Championship Game roster and coaching staff is intact and another year of development should only continue the Bills’ upward trajectory. I forecast a comfortable two-game lead in the division despite some strong midseason pushes from Miami and New England.
AFC North Champion: Baltimore Ravens, 13-4
The electricity of Lamar Jackson plus the brains of John Harbaugh and Greg Roman plus the stout Baltimore defensive tradition equals a team I am more than comfortable taking to win the division for the third time in four seasons.
AFC South Champion: Tennessee Titans, 10-7
I would love to pick Tennessee to regress given the erosion of the defensive star power, but I could certainly see an offense with Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and a healthy Julio Jones going 6-0 in perhaps the worst division in football.
AFC West Champion: Kansas City Chiefs, 13-4
Bold prediction — the Chiefs will actually lose four games. But with Patrick Mahomes at the helm, they won’t fall too far and will enter the playoffs as clear favorites to reach their third consecutive Super Bowl.
AFC First Wild Card: Los Angeles Chargers, 11-6
Last season’s team was plagued by bad bounces and injury luck, and even if Justin Herbert’s sophomore campaign isn’t as stratospheric as his first, the Chargers look to be the clear No. 2 team in the AFC West and a contender under first year coach Brandon Staley.
AFC Second Wild Card: Cleveland Browns, 11-6
I don’t trust the Browns one bit even with their mind-blowing assortment of talent on both sides of the ball. 11 wins and a Wild Card seems like a good middle ground for a team that embodies the concept of “boom-or-bust.”
AFC Third Wild Card: Miami Dolphins, 10-7
With an expanded playbook, actual receivers to throw to and the team’s confidence behind him, Tua Tagovailoa will prove doubters wrong and keep the Dolphins one step ahead of Mac Jones’ Patriots in the Wild Card race.
Just Missed: New England Patriots, 10-7; Indianapolis Colts, 8-9; Pittsburgh Steelers, 8-9
These three defenses will be pretty intimidating when their AFC opponents are developing their gameplan, but uncertainty at the quarterback position will leave each blue chip franchise on the outside looking in.
AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens over Buffalo Bills
The Ravens’ best-case scenario in the AFC bracket comes through — a divisional matchup against the Chargers in chilly Baltimore and a Bills win over Kansas City, letting the Ravens avoid Patrick Mahomes entirely. The Ravens get revenge for last year’s Divisional Round debacle by stifling Josh Allen and racking up Justin Tucker field goals.
NFC East Champion: Dallas Cowboys, 10-7
Dak Prescott’s return will work wonders for the Cowboys, who were as feisty last year without their star quarterback and without an offensive line. If Prescott’s protection can stay intact and Dan Quinn can lift this defense up a notch — both extremely attainable goals — the Cowboys will cruise to the NFC East crown.
NFC North Champion: Green Bay Packers, 13-4
The trifecta of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, running back Aaron Jones and receiver Davante Adams will rack up enough yards and points to help Green Bay breeze through the NFC North, setting up one more run at a Lombardi Trophy.
NFC South Champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 13-4
Each season brings kinks to be ironed out and the Buccaneers endure some turbulence, but still capture the NFC South division title for the first time since 2007 by a convincing four-game margin. Imagine Tampa Bay with home field advantage in these playoffs after three road wins last year…
NFC West Champion: San Francisco 49ers, 13-4
Regardless of whether the Niners start a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo or a dynamic Trey Lance, San Francisco will be set to resume its winning ways. With a fourth-place schedule and multiple stars returning from injury, my bet is on the Niners to survive the gauntlet that is the NFC West.
NFC First Wild Card: Seattle Seahawks, 12-5
While the Seattle defense fades further and further from the Legion of Boom era, the Seahawks’ offense has reason to expect more consistency and late-season fireworks. Plus, Russell Wilson is the best quarterback in the division, which gives Seattle a high floor.
NFC Second Wild Card: Los Angeles Rams, 11-6
I’m rooting for Matthew Stafford in this next chapter of his NFL legacy, but the Rams will fall a couple games back of their division rivals. The loss of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley stings, and while the first-place schedule doesn’t doom the Rams in the playoff picture, it makes a repeat division title more of a stretch.
NFC Third Wild Card: New York Giants, 9-8
Two NFC East teams in the playoffs — who would have thunk it? The Giants edge out three other nine-win squads after a major developmental jump forward from quarterback Daniel Jones, the return of Saquon Barkley and another strong coaching performance from upstart Joe Judge. Questions abound on defense and the offensive line and I don’t feel confident, exactly, but this is a projection for a team that has exciting upside.
Just Missed: Arizona Cardinals, 9-8; Carolina Panthers, 9-8; New Orleans Saints, 9-8
Kyler Murray has a more consistent season, but the supporting cast around him falters as Kliff Kingsbury’s future with the team is brought into question. NFC South rivals Carolina and New Orleans effectively cancel each other out with quarterbacks looking for a career refresh, though nine wins is a welcome development for the Panthers’ Matt Rhule.
NFC Championship: Tampa Bay Buccaneers over Los Angeles Rams
Tom Brady improves to 11-3 against NFC teams in the playoffs en route to his 11th Super Bowl, though Matt Stafford’s underdog run to the brink of the Big Game is nothing to sneeze at. And just imagine that Final Four from a coaching standpoint: Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians, the Rams’ Sean McVay, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and Buffalo’s Sean McDermott. That would be a definite treat.
Super Bowl LVI: Tampa Bay Buccaneers over Baltimore Ravens
The reverse of my Super Bowl LV prediction from last season, I’m taking Brady and the Bucs to repeat as Super Bowl champions, this time on the other coast. Tampa Bay should look much better in the regular season than they did for most of 2020, and while their red-hot performance in last year’s playoffs might indicate a fluky run, their very similar roster construction and the fact that they have Tom Brady suggest otherwise. Lamar Jackson puts up an admirable fight against the heavily favored Buccaneers, but the Ravens’ can’t quite foil Tampa Bay from becoming the first back-to-back winner since Brady’s Patriots in the 2004 season.