The 2021 NFL season will be kicking off later this week with 30 teams still chasing Tom Brady’s Buccaneers and Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs. The respective Super Bowl 55 champions and runners-up are both loaded to make another championship run, but some of their closest contenders also look strong again.
The NFC is deep with potential playoff teams with the field staying at seven entrants for the first-ever 17-game regular season over 18 weeks. The AFC, meanwhile, remains top-heavy as a handful of teams have the capacity to dethrone the Chiefs and keep their conference title coup at two.
Although there will be plenty of parity and unpredictability when the schedule is played out with a few surprises, it will shock no one to see the teams with the best quarterbacks continuing to have the most success. Based on what we think we know going into the season, here’s how SN projects the order of finish in every division and predicts the playoffs will go:
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NFL predictions 2021
The Bills are an offensive machine with Josh Allen, who now has a big contract to match his emergence as an elite passer and runner. They will have even more trust in him this season with a few more weapons. The defense will get more complementary credit for having more playmakers on every level.
The Patriots will be trying to manufacture enough wins their way with Bill Belichick again, aware of their passing game limitations but warming up more to their running game strengths. With Mac Jones being the choice over Cam Newton, New England’s burden of winning will keep falling more on the defense.
The Dolphins want to make a bigger splash after getting above .500 and being in the playoff mix in 2020, but Tua Tagovailoa is bound to take more lumps in what feels like more of a true rookie season with a lot of change around him. With Brian Flores, Miami will try to mirror New England’s ways, with the hopes of an improved big-play passing game.
The Jets have strong new foundations in place with coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. The early potential return on Zach Wilson sounds promising. They will play more inspired with bigger overall improvement around the corner.
The Browns turned the corner quickly with coach Kevin Stefanski, thanks to their running game. That will set up a big season for Baker Mayfield as the passing game delivers a lot more. The defense has fewer weaknesses around Myles Garrett with additional impact players on every level. Cleveland deserves all the extra division-winning hype after coming through with a long-awaited wild-card breakthrough.
The Ravens did lose a big part of their run-heavy offense with J.K. Dobbins going down, but Lamar Jackson and Gus Edwards can keep them running well. They should also feel more confident with extra ways to open up the passing game. The defense has moving pieces but it is still a reliable backbone. Count on John Harbaugh to coach as needed to get them back in the playoffs.
The Steelers still have some concerns about Ben Roethlisberger, especially given some of his discomfort in the new system, but they will take much pressure off him with a run-heavier approach featuring rookie Najee Harris. Coach Mike Tomlin prefers that style of complementary offense to better support T.J. Watt and the nasty, throwback defense.
The Bengals will surprise some as Joe Burrow comes back strong to show why he was picked No. 1 overall in 2020, leading one of the league’s more dynamic passing games. They also will get some return on their defensive investments creating more positive vibes in a critical bridge year for coach Zac Taylor.
The Titans continue to have some considerable defensive holes even with some better pieces, but their offense should remain status quo explosive if healthy. They will remain run-heavy with Derrick Henry, delivering a dangerous downfield play-action passing game with Ryan Tannehill now throwing to Julio Jones as well as A.J. Brown. Coach Mike Vrabel will help them overachieve again.
The Colts don’t have the best vibes with some of their piling early injuries, led by Carson Wentz, Quenton Nelson and T.Y. Hilton. They will be perhaps too reliant on Jonathan Taylor’s running and the formidable defense with a questionable passing game in transition for coach Frank Reich.
The Jaguars are trying to balance out the high level of skepticism around coach Urban Meyer with the optimism around Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence will do his best to overcome a conservative initial offense, but the rebuilding defense is the much bigger concern in Jacksonville.
The Texans won’t be having Deshaun Watson at quarterback all season for one reason or another, which means they will have no elite on-field passing and running talent to help them overcome major defensive deficiencies and offensive limitations. The cupboard is bare and rookie coach David Culley will bear the brunt of not having a competitive team on paper.
The Chiefs have Mahomes and the rest of the league is chasing that level of special QB play. They always have a high floor and as long Mahomes is healthy, they will be on the short list to get to the Super Bowl. His two elite weapons also are in their prime and Mahomes should get better support from Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the running game. The defense remains a complementary playmaking force.
The Chargers will be another surprise team thanks to rookie coach Brandon Staley’s influence on the defense to live up to some of its immense potential. The offense will be fine, too, with Justin Herbert avoiding a sophomore slump in Joe Lombardi’s welcome system. They’re not ready to make the Chiefs sweat, but they should at least go back to playoff-worthy status.
The Broncos are trying to hide quarterback but that’s difficult given it will affect their receiving talent in some way. They will try to win for defensive-minded coach Vic Fangio with one side of the ball plus a heavy dose of the running game that now includes rookie Javonte Williams, but that’s not nearly enough for a winning product.
The Raiders continue to be messy defensively for coach Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock. There seems to be no clear direction with the offense, a mishmash of possible big-play passing with Derek Carr and maybe run-heaviness with Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake. Don’t bet on a big second year in Las Vegas.
The Cowboys have the considerable QB advantage in the division with a healthy Dak Prescott and they should score their way back above .500 to steal the division. The defense will have its issues coming through for new coordinator Dan Quinn, but youngsters such as Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs can make it respectable.
The Football Team will have explosive offense of its own to challenge the Cowboys with Ryan Fitzpatrick distributing the ball to top triplets of playmakers in Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas. It’s also easy to get pumped for Ron Rivera’s defense making plays with Chase Young at the front of it. Just expect inconsistency with Fitzmagic.
The Giants are an impossible team to read because Daniel Jones and the revamped passing offense add up to total wild card. Their defense is underrated with some intriguing parts on all levels. They could shock and steal the division, or they could fall further back in their rebuild and put coach Joe Judge on the hot seat for 2022.
The Eagles also are a bit unpredictable in terms of what Jalen Hurts and the offense will give them. They’re in transition there and defensively, too, with new coach Nick Sirianni and coordinator Jonathan Gannon. Philadelphia and New York will likely still battle for third vs. being in the mix for first.
The Packers know they will have Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams headlining their offense for at least one more season, with Aaron Jones and the running game serving as the true foundation. Coach Matt LaFleur’s team will be in the running for the NFC title again but need better defense to get over the hump into the Super Bowl.
The Vikings are bound to underachieve in some form for coach Mike Zimmer as the defensive vibes are more questionable than you think and their strong offensive profile with Kirk Cousins can only take them so far, even with Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
The Bears will drop from playoff status more so because they have questions around their quarterback situation and are bound to regress more to the mean with the defensive prowess falling off a bit. At least they can look forward to what Justin Fields can do for them full-time in 2022.
The Lions are right there with the Texans in cleaning house with limited standout players on either side of the ball for new coach Dan Campbell as new GM Brad Holmes made his offseason moves with a few years down the line in mind, including Jared Goff as a shaky bridge QB.
The Buccaneers are a rare Super Bowl-winning team to return intact in the following season, with the GOAT QB Brady to boot. They deserve to go from wild-card entry to dominant division champions with a good chance to defend their ring.
The Saints will find a way to win some games by supporting Jameis Winston well with the running game and defense, also a reminder of how good of a creative coach Sean Payton is. But there are too many personnel questions to consider a post-Drew Brees return to the playoffs.
The Panthers have a good mix of offensive skill players and rising young defense talent at particular positions. But the quarterback and play up front are genuine concerns in Year 2 of the rebuild under coach Matt Rhule.
The Falcons are also going through big change with offensive-minded Arthur Smith taking over as coach to get more out of Matt Ryan and the running game to take advantage of new-look dangerous receivers. The defense will still be the issue first, however, post Quinn.
The 49ers will have a much cleaner bill of health defensively with Nick Bosa back and their offense will be special regardless of the QB for coach Kyle Shanahan. Look for them to return to their NFC championship form of 2019.
The Rams have been over-hyped with Matthew Stafford being the new leader of coach Sean McVay’s offense, but they did lose some key parts on defense, led by Staley. They will be on par with last season’s team vs. shooting up to the top of the conference again.
The Seahawks simply don’t have losing seasons with the combination of Russell Wilson and coach Pete Carroll. They have too much firepower in a better offense led by Rams export Shane Waldron and just enough complementary defense with Jamal Adams to stay above. 500 and maintain their playoff status.
The Cardinals just missed the playoffs and the heat is on coach Kliff Kingsbury to deliver with a high-upside Kyler Murray. Luckily, there will be room for four teams from the division to make up the majority of the NFC playoff field to join the Buccaneers, Cowboys and Packers.
AFC playoff predictions
The Browns will once again take care of the Steelers to open the playoffs, this time with the roles reversed and Cleveland being the much stronger team all-around. The Chargers will be a nice story, but Herbert will be out-dueled by the more seasoned Allen. The Titans also won’t be able to slow down Jackson and the Ravens in their rematch.
The Chiefs are too good with Mahomes to fall to the Ravens, against whom they still match up well. Mayfield will enjoy the next turning point in his career by out-dueling his draft classmate Allen.
Winning in Kansas City is tough for anyone. Expect Mahomes to be healthy for a full game and not give Cleveland the opening to avenge either last year’s playoff loss or this year’s opener.
NFC playoff predictions
The 49ers should be having Trey Lance in the lineup by the time they face the Cardinals a third time and their defense will help clip Murray in a close one. The Packers still have little more pop than the Seahawks as Rodgers, Adams and Jones fuel another early playoff victory. The Cowboys will falter as divisions champs as the Rams have a lot more defense for January.
Tom Brady won’t be losing to Matthew Stafford in a big game in Round 2. The healthy version of the 49ers will continue to have the Packers’ number with Shanahan out-coaching LaFleur.
Brady and the Bucs will then turn aside Lance’s 49ers in an epic showdown to ensure they are the ones who win two NFC titles in three seasons.
Super Bowl 56 prediction
This would be the first Super Bowl rematch in 28 years and there’s good reason for it, as both teams have special quarterbacks, loaded rosters, veteran offensive-minded coaches and playmaking defenses. This time, expect a classic where Mahomes and the Chiefs learn well from how the Buccaneers played them so well last February. Mahomes losing the biggest game of them all twice in a row just doesn’t seem likely.
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