The amount of parity in the NFC in recent years has been real, with only one occasion of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in the last 23 years (Seattle Seahawks; 2013-2014). In the last 15 seasons, Dallas, Washington, and Detroit are the only NFC teams NOT to make a Super Bowl appearance.
Tom Brady managed to take Tampa Bay all the way in his first year and with their entire core returning should be a favorite once again. Aaron Rodgers will likely be in store for one final run with the only team he has ever known. A three-headed monster out in the West consist of Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco all have strong rosters and should make some noise should they not beat up on one another too early in the year. The Jameis Winston-led Saints and Cardinals will also be strong and capable of beating every team on any given week.
Minnesota and Dallas will possess two high flying offenses and should they provide more consistency, will make their respective returns to the postseason. Washington will provide one of the NFL’s most intimidating defenses with Fitzmagic leading the way on offense, while the pressure will be on Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones in Carolina and New York respectively now that they are in more ideal situations. Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields (once he takes over) will be exciting watches and could lead their teams to exceeded expectations with fast starts. Detroit and Atlanta will also attempt to raise some eyebrows and avoid hitting the reset button entirely.
The ongoing saga that is the NFL is like no other and us fans are all for it over the next six months. Now enough with the banter, let’s get to some predictions!
Green Bay Packers
2020 Record/Season Result: 13-3 / NFC North Champs / Lost NFC Championship vs TB 31-26
2021 Prediction: 11-6 (5-1) / #3 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 3 @ SF (SNF), Week 8 @ ARI (TNF), Week 9 @ KC, Week 12 vs LAR, Week 17 vs MIN (SNF)
No team’s 2021 season was in greater flux throughout the offseason more than the Packers due to the fractured relationship between the organization and longtime franchise quarterback and 2020 MVP Aaron Rodgers. After a compromise was seemingly met, Rodgers will be back in the fold in what looks to be his final season in Green Bay.
Despite the drama, it is hard to not imagine the Packers being one of the top contenders in the NFC after back-to-back NFC Championship appearances. The roster remains deep with talent after they had a league-high six players finish among the top two in their positions, with Aaron Rodgers (95.1), Davante Adams (92.0) and Jaire Alexander (90.1) each finishing at the top.
The offensive line could see a regression after losing Corey Linsley to free agency, while David Bahktiari (ACL) will miss at least the first six games after being placed on the PUP list. The number one scoring offense (31.8 points per game) will return most of its core skill players led by Davante Adams’ shifty route running and Aaron Jones’ dual threat ability out of the backfield. Randall Cobb returns to Green Bay after a two-year hiatus, but will likely take on a smaller role with Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan coming into their own as receiving threats.
The defensive front remains solid, with the reliable Kenny Clark manning the middle, while Za’Darius Smith, who has accumulated 25 sacks in two seasons with the Packers, lines up as the premier edge rusher. The help on the opposite side will need to become more consistent, however, as no one other than Smith managed to sack the quarterback more than five times last season. Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos are an elite safety tandem, who were able to combine for eight takeaways and 158 tackles in 2020. Jaire Alexander still remains on a short list of best corners in the NFL, but they will need massive improvement from the other side of the field after Kevin King and company struggled immensely throughout the latter part of the year and playoffs.
Green Bay’s schedule is not necessarily forgiving, which will likely lead to a regression from their two straight seasons with a 13-3 record, however without a true contender within their division, the Packers should be one of the top seeds once again in a NFC conference filled with unknowns. Whether or not they will be able to finally get over the hump remains to be seen, though.
2020 Record/Season Result: 8-8 / Lost Wild Card @ NO 21-9
2021 Prediction: 7-10 (2-4) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 4 vs DET, Week 6 vs GB, Week 8 vs SF, Week 13 vs ARI, Week 15 vs MIN (MNF)
Kudos to the Bears for refusing to stay complacent after back-to-back 8-8 seasons, moving off former top three pick Mitch Trubisky and into a new direction at quarterback. After bringing in veteran Andy Dalton to temporarily fill the void and compete with Nick Foles, Chicago was very aggressive in the draft, trading two first round picks to move up and draft Justin Fields out of Ohio State.
Dalton was named the starter to begin the year, however one would think that would be only temporary considering the urgency for Head Coach Matt Nagy to win games in order to establish some job security going forward. Wide receiver Allen Robinson II is as steady of a threat as you can ask for on the outside, catching 200 passes over the last two seasons, third most in the NFL in that span.
David Montgomery broke out in 2020 due to a thin backfield after Tarik Cohen (ACL) went down early in the year, finishing with 1,508 all-purpose yards (4th) and 10 touchdowns. The offensive line faces a potential regression after the departures of Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie. Second round pick Teven Jenkins will start the year on IR. Elijah Wilkinson and Germain Ifedi will man the tackle spots, but neither have ever posted a PFF grade above 65.0 as a starter. It is not an ideal situation for a rookie quarterback, however Andy Dalton may have even more trouble due to his immobility.
The front seven of the Bears remains the bread and butter of this team, however, led by Khalil Mack, who outside of Aaron Donald, may hold the title of the NFL’s best defensive player, posting a PFF grade north of 86.0 in all seven seasons as a pro. Roquan Smith has finally come into his own as a coverage linebacker as well, but needs to show improvement in his ability to defend the run after finishing with the third-lowest grade of all linebackers that played at least 1,000 snaps (39.8).
Eddie Jackson still remains with the team as a solid safety, but Chicago’s secondary could be in for a very rough year, especially after cutting Kyle Fuller in the offseason, and after final roster cuts, parting ways with veteran Desmond Trufant. While second-year pro Jaylon Johnson showed flashes as a rookie, the rest of the secondary is filled with underwhelming talent, who each allowed at least a 70% completion percentage when targeted last season.
This season’s outlook for the Bears will be predicated on how long it takes for Matt Nagy to go with Justin Fields at quarterback. While he may be the better option to have better 2021 success, there are still too many holes on this roster to suggest they will be able to return to the postseason.
2020 Record/Season Result: 7-9 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 9-8 (4-2) / #7 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 3 vs SEA, Week 8 vs DAL (SNF), Week 11 vs GB, Week 15 @ CHI (MNF), Week 16 vs LAR
The Vikings took a step back last year, finishing with a losing record for the first time in seven seasons, but it was no fault of an offense that was as efficient as could be.
Running back Dalvin Cook enjoyed a career year, finishing with the most all-purpose yards per game in the NFL (137.0) and 17 touchdowns, while rookie sensation Justin Jefferson broke the total receiving yards record (1,400) set 23 years prior by former Viking Randy Moss. Kirk Cousins also enjoyed an efficient year, with a personal-best 35 passing touchdowns and second consecutive season with a passer rating north of 105. That has been their M.O. of late, however. Put up decent numbers. Beat the bad teams. Underwhelm against strong opponents. Rinse and repeat.
In the last three seasons with Cousins at quarterback, the Vikings have a 3-16 record against opponents that finish the season with a winning record. That is not going to get things done if you are Cousins or Head Coach Mike Zimmer, who saw his defensive-minded scheme fall apart in 2020, allowing 29.7 points per game and finishing in the bottom six in the NFL against both the pass and the run.
Coming into 2021, PFF ranked their roster ninth among the 32 NFL teams (5th in NFC). The offensive line has undergone a youth movement in the last few years, with the projected starting five having the second-youngest average age (24.73) in the NFL behind the Green Bay Packers.
The trio of Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen should continue to put up numbers offensively, especially after tight end Irv Smith Jr. (meniscus) was lost for the year during the final week of preseason. The subsequent trade for Chris Herndon likely will not make the desired impact after he graded out as both a below average receiver and run blocker as a member of the Jets last year.
The defensive line should see a significant improvement with the returns of Danielle Hunter (neck) and Michael Pierce (COVID opt-out) after the duo each missed the entirety of the 2020 season. Linebacker Anthony Barr will also return after missing all but two games last year to pair with Eric Kendricks, who has been the best coverage linebacker in the NFL over the last few seasons. On the back end, the Vikings brought in a pair of veterans in seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson and Breshad Breeland to join the always reliable Harrison Smith in order to improve their atrocious play in coverage last season.
Starting the year with a pair of winnable road games and then a stretch that includes just one road game the following seven weeks is the ideal way to get off to a fast start. The post-bye week schedule could be one of the toughest in the NFL however, so it will be imperative that Minnesota get hot early, or else we could see a flameout of epic proportions as the year wanes.
2020 Record/Season Result: 5-11 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 5-12 (1-5) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 4 @ CHI, Week 8 vs PHI, Week 13 vs MIN, Week 15 vs ARI, Week 16 @ ATL
Detroit will enter 2021 with probably the fewest expectations of an NFC team. After trading long-time signal caller Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff and multiple first round picks, appearing to hit the reset button in the process.
Head coach Dan Campbell’s “biting kneecaps” mentality may warranted its fair share of jeers, but it is an attitude needed to spark a fire in the organization, who have seen their fair share of irrelevance with only one playoff victory since 1963. Sure, that streak is likely to continue once this season concludes, however I see the looks of a team that could be more competitive than the general public realizes.
The offensive personnel leaves much to be desired, but the Lions actually possess one of the most talented young offensive lines in the NFL. Left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow have each become one of the most underrated players at their respective positions, while first round pick Penei Sewell was hyped up as one of the best tackle prospects in nearly a decade leading up to the draft. The skill group of Tyrell Williams, D’Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, and T.J. Hockenson do not wow you at first glance, but they are all fine players capable of all producing with a former number one overall pick at quarterback in Jared Goff.
Defensively is where Detroit will likely struggle once again, with a severe lack of depth across all three levels. Veterans Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins Sr., and Michael Brockers will all make plays, but it will be on the rest of the inexperienced unit that will need to step up to improve on a defense that allowed the second-most points in NFL history (519) last season. Cornerback Jeffrey Okudah was probably the NFL’s most disappointing rookie last year after being picked third overall, posting the worst coverage grade (30.9) among his position and will need to take a big leap in a secondary inept with quality starting experience.
All in all, Detroit does not have much going for them in terms of a potential playoff push, but they are much better than their 4.5 projected win total suggests. They will be outmatched from a talent perspective on most weeks, but playing the role of playoff spoiler in the back half of the year and finishing with a solid six or seven wins is completely doable in a transition year for the Lions.
New Orleans Saints
2020 Record/Season Result: 12-4 / NFC South Champs / Lost Div. Round vs TB 30-20
2021 Prediction: 8-9 (3-3) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 2 @ CAR, Week 7 @ SEA, Week 8 vs TB, Week 13 vs DAL, Week 18 @ ATL
The post-Drew Brees era is officially underway in New Orleans following the anticipated retirement of the 13-time Pro Bowler this offseason. Jameis Winston will now run the show in hopes of establishing himself as the franchise’s quarterback of the future. The roster has gotten thinner after a few cap casualties and departures, but still has several impact players on both sides of the ball.
The offensive line possesses the best tackle tandem in the NFL in Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, who have each graded out as a top 10 tackle in three of the last four years. Erik McCoy and Cesar Ruiz are also very young talents on the interior line that combined to surrender just one sack last year. The backfield contains the NFL’s premier dual threat running back in Alvin Kamara, who led the league in touchdowns last year (21) in large part due to the record-setting six touchdown performance on Christmas Day against the Vikings.
Michael Thomas, the NFL’s all-time single-season receptions leader (149), will have to wait a while to redeem his injury-plagued 2020 season after landing on the PUP list to start 2021. Without his services to begin the year, the Saints have a severe need for wide receiver production after the departures of veterans Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook. Marquez Callaway could become the main beneficiary, after establishing a connection with Jameis Winston and being one of the pleasant surprises of the preseason.
Despite the loss of breakout edge rusher Trey Hendrickson, New Orleans still will field a strong edge duo with Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport, the latter of which has grown into a strong defensive talent, but has shown an inability to stay healthy thus far in his young career. Linebacker Demario Davis has been an incredible presence as the mike over the last two seasons, grading out as a top five linebacker in each year. The secondary could be in store for a regression, despite the surprising return of Safety Marcus Williams. Cornerback Marcus Lattimore started his career strong, but has steadily regressed in coverage each of his last four seasons. Ken Crawley and C.J. Gardner-Johnson have been subpar in coverage as well in the last few seasons, which could lead to a fair amount of shootouts this year.
The schedule is manageable, but one must wonder how their home situation will play out, with the Saints beginning the season with home games in Jacksonville after Hurricane Ida hit the state of Louisiana last week. In all likelihood, the Saints will surrender their four year run atop the NFC South, especially with the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in the fold, but with the rest of the NFC filled with uncertainty, a Wild Card appearance is certainly in the cards for New Orleans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2020 Record/Season Result: 11-5 / Won Super Bowl LV vs KC 31-9
2021 Prediction: 13-4 (4-2) / #1 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 3 @ LAR, Week 4 @ NE, Week 8 @ NO, Week 12 @ IND, Week 14 vs BUF
Well TB in TB did not take long to pay off, did it? Tom Brady, in his age 43 season defied all odds yet again to lead a franchise without much championship pedigree prior to a Super Bowl victory against the defending champs in a rout.
Tampa Bay doubled down on their intention to run it back, bringing back all 22 starters in an unprecedented move, especially considering the amount of stars that entered free agency and the limited cap space they had entering the offseason. The amount of depth the Buccaneers possess throughout the roster makes it seem as though they should be the favorites to win Super Bowl LVI, but let’s pump the brakes on that preconceived notion for a moment.
Their skill position group is among the league’s best with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, and their running back duo of Ronald Jones II and Playoff Lenny providing them with an embarrassment of riches. The offensive line, led by rookie standout Tristan Wirfs finished among the top five offensive lines last season as well.
The front seven could arguably be the NFL’s best as well, with five of the seven finishing with a pass rush grade of 70 or higher, while Lavonte David has finished as a top five linebacker in three of the last four seasons according to PFF. The secondary is about league average, but still contains several young starters all capable of making a leap in 2021.
In addition to a division that does not contain any true contenders, Tampa Bay will face one of the easiest NFL schedules as well. There should be no issue with the Bucs finishing with one of the best records in the NFC, but that will not be the goal for this squad. Come playoff time, they will need to avoid complacency with several quality contenders nipping at their heels with attempts to stop Tampa Bay’s quest to become the first repeat Super Bowl champion since the 2004 New England Patriots.
2020 Record/Season Result: 5-11 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 7-10 (3-3) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 1 vs NYJ, Week 6 vs MIN, Week 10 @ ARI, Week 11 vs WAS, Week 17 @ NO
Carolina enters 2021 coming off back-to-back 5-11 seasons, but could ultimately become one of the scrappier teams in the NFL this year.
Boasting the league’s fourth youngest roster, the Panthers enter year two of the Matt Rhule era now with a new young quarterback in Sam Darnold, who was dealt for this offseason. The former Jet will have his fair share of weapons to feed the ball to, including two-time All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey and former teammate Robby Anderson. Their 30th ranked offensive line leaves much to be desired, but overall veterans Matt Paradis and Taylor Moton have shown capabilities of being a top 15 option among their respective positions.
After selecting defensive players with all seven picks in 2020 and Jaycee Horn as the first defensive player off the board, Carolina’s defense is being built as a fast unit capable of producing multiple takeaways. Brian Burns made a huge leap in year two, finishing as a top five edge as a pass rusher (86.9), while Jeremy Chinn impressed as a rookie safety, finishing with the third-most tackles as a defensive back (117).
A scheduling break allows Carolina to start the year playing just two 2020 playoff teams in the first 12 weeks, both of which will be home games against New Orleans in Week 2 and Washington in Week 11. A tough final month of the year includes a road game against Buffalo and two meetings against Tampa, but with the Panthers lacking much expectation in 2021, they could be one of the surprising Wild Card contenders, which would be a giant step based on their recent lack of success.
2020 Record/Season Result: 4-12 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 4-13 (2-4) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 4 vs WAS, Week 9 @ NO, Week 11 vs NE (TNF), Week 14 @ CAR, Week 18 vs NO
Atlanta comes off their third straight losing season, yet refused to concede to a rebuild this offseason, passing on a potential future franchise quarterback and instead drafting the top pass catching prospect Kyle Pitts in the draft in order to squeeze out what is left of Matt Ryan’s prime entering his age-36 season.
With Pitts and breakout star Calvin Ridley as targets, the departure of Julio Jones likely won’t sting as much as the general public believes. The offensive line is littered with good, not great talent. Jake Matthews is an always reliable blindside blocker and Chris Lindstrom finished as a top 10 guard last season according to PFF, but rest of the unit includes a rookie, a second year, who struggled as a rookie backup, and former first round pick Kaleb McGary, who has allowed 17 sacks by himself in the last two season.
On the defensive side, the Falcons have a pair of talented veterans in Deion Jones and Grady Jarrett, but the rest of the defense leaves much to be desired. After allowing the most passing yards in the NFL in 2020 (4,697), Atlanta did not do much to address the secondary, or pass rush for that matter. Prized free agent signing Dante Fowler Jr. was a disappointment, notching just four sacks and finishing 102nd among 108 qualifying pass rushers. As a secondary, the Falcons opted to continue running with Isaiah Oliver and 2020 first round pick A.J. Terrell, who both finished with a grade of 60 or lower in coverage.
It is safe to say the Falcons will be in their fair share of shootouts in 2021. With the rest of the roster’s overall lack of firepower, especially on the defensive side, it is farfetched to consider a potential return to the postseason for the Falcons, which could leave them in the cellar of the NFC South for at least another season.
Washington Football Team
2020 Record/Season Result: 7-9 / NFC East Champs / Lost Wild Card vs TB 31-23
2021 Prediction: 9-8 (3-3) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 6 vs KC, Week 10 vs TB, Week 12 vs SEA (MNF), Week 16 @ DAL (SNF), Week 18 @ NYG
Despite public ridicule for the laughing stock that is the NFC East, Washington managed to do a fine job rebounding for a horrid 2019, to win the division in Ron Rivera’s first season as head coach.
On the offensive end they will be looking for improvement after finishing 25th in scoring (20.9) and 30th in total yards per game (337.9) largely due the the quarterback carousel that saw Washington having to go with their fourth starter in their lone playoff game, where they were a tough out against the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick will add to his own NFL record this season, starting for his ninth career NFL team and will look to provide some stability and hopefully more offensive juice than seen with a pair of young star receivers in Terry McLaurin and new addition Curtis Samuel, who are both coming off career years. Running back Antonio Gibson will look to build off his solid rookie season, where he finished with 11 rushing touchdowns (T-7th) in just 170 rushing attempts, the fewest of any back that scored at least 10 touchdowns.
The defense was outright dominant, holding opponents to just 20.6 points per game (4th), while finishing in the top eight in takeaways (7th), against the pass (2nd), and in sacks (6th). With a defensive line filled with first rounders, the unit could suddenly become the league’s best, led by Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young, who finished as a top five graded defensive end (87.1). On the back end, Washington brought in William Jackson III, giving them a quality cornerback tandem with veteran Kendall Fuller. Landon Collins will return after an injury-riddled 2020 to pair with Kamren Curl at safety, who impressed as a 7th round rookie last season with three interceptions.
Washington will face some tough competition in the early stages of the year, but will have the opportunity to finish the year strong with five straight divisional matchups to end the season. The offense in totality should improve, while the defense will be atop most statistical categories, but becoming the first NFC East team to repeat as divisional champions since 2004 will require more consistency, with a few quality wins against elite teams, as I do not foresee a losing record being enough to squeeze into the playoffs once again.
New York Giants
2020 Record/Season Result: 6-10 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 7-10 (4-2) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 5 @ DAL, Week 7 vs CAR, Week 15 vs DAL, Week 16 @ PHI, Week 18 vs WAS
The Giants enter 2021 headlined with a make-or-break year for third year quarterback Daniel Jones. The former Blue Devil has had questionable decision making in his first two seasons as quarterback, failing to protect the ball in the process, recording an NFL-high 39 turnovers in the previous two years combined.
The offensive line remains a huge question mark with 2020 top five pick Andrew Thomas failing to make a significant impact in year one, while the rest of the starters are filled with inexperience and below average play. The skill group should see an upgrade following the return of Saquon Barkley (ACL) and additions of veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph and elite vertical threat Kenny Golladay in hopes of improving New York’s 31st-ranked scoring offense (17.5 points per game). The defense exceeded expectations last season, finishing in the top 12 in points allowed (9th), yards allowed (12th), and takeaways (T-10th).
Defensive lineman Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence were two of the best interior lineman in the NFL with each finishing among the top 20 at their position. Linebacker Blake Martinez was stout once again in his first season with the Giants, finishing his fourth straight season with at least 140 combined tackles (no one else has more than two such seasons in that span). Free agent signee Adoree’ Jackson will look to return to form after an injury-riddled final season in Tennessee. He graded out a 73.0 or higher in each of his first three seasons and if he can return to that number, he will pair with James Bradberry to be one of the league’s best cornerback tandems this season. The back end will also include quality veterans Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan, Xavier McKinney should step into a larger role after a solid rookie year in limited time.
In order for the Giants to leapfrog the Cowboys and Washington atop the division, they will need to show out in those key matchups. In the last four seasons, they have controlled the series against Washington, winning six of eight, but losing seven of eight to the Cowboys in that same span. Should New York finish with a positive record within the division and improve on their atrocious 2-8 record against opponents outside of the division, a playoff appearance could surely be on the horizon.
2020 Record/Season Result: 6-10 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 9-8 (5-1) / #4 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 2 @ LAC, Week 13 @ NO (TNF), Week 15 @ NYG, Week 16 vs WAS (SNF), Week 17 vs ARI
Dallas will look to rebound after an injury-riddled 2020 to jump back into relevance.
Quarterback Dak Prescott will return after a season-ending ankle injury that sidelined him for all but four and a half games last year, or so it seems. A shoulder injury limited his availability throughout training camp and preseason, so it will be interesting to see how soon he can get back into form.
He won’t be short on receiving talent, however. Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup form one of the best one of the top receiving trios in the NFL and are all capable exceeding 1,000 yards from scrimmage. While the offensive line ranks among the upper echelon that the league has to offer, it still remains painfully thin and will significantly dip as a unit should Zack Martin, La’el Collins, or Tyron Smith, who missed 36 games combined last year, miss time. Running back Ezekiel Elliott will need to have a bounce back season after career-lows in yards per carry (4.0), rushing yards per game (65.3), touchdowns (8), while also leading all running backs in fumbles (6).
The Cowboys hit hard on defense in the draft, with their first six picks favoring that side of the ball in hopes of improving a defense that allowed the most points in franchise history (29.6 points per game). Linebacker Micah Parsons has shown flashes of an immediate difference maker early on after an impressive camp and preseason. New Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn’s scheme should fit the Cowboys’ personnel much better than Mike Nolan’s in 2020, which will lead to an uptick in production for a defense that struggled in all facets last season.
Keanu Neal, who has played under Dan Quinn his entire career, will transition into linebacker this year after being one of the NFL’s strongest box safeties when healthy in his young career. Dallas’ 31st ranked run defense could struggle yet again, especially with defensive tackles Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore on the mend to begin the year. The secondary remains thin and without star power, but contains several young talents that, while inconsistent, have shown flashes of being a solid secondary.
Dallas will also get a scheduling break, with no matchups against 2020 playoff teams between weeks two and 10, while finishing the year with four of their last five being divisional games. On paper, Dallas should be one of the most exciting offenses in 2021, yet that is a phrase we have seen far too many times “on paper” does not translate to quality wins in recent years.
With Dak under center the last four seasons, Dallas has a putrid record of 7-17 against teams who finish the season with a winning record. Last season, fans and analysts galore hyped up Prescott’s numbers through his first four games, yet they fail to mention had it not been for a Falcon’s onside blunder, the Cowboys would have been 0-4 in those games. For Dallas to be successful in 2021, they will have to translate their numbers to the win column and have higher goals than winning the NFL’s worst division.
2020 Record/Season Result: 4-11-1 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 5-12 (1-5) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 3 @ DAL (MNF), Week 8 @ DET, Week 11 vs NO, Week 15 vs WAS, Week 16 vs NYG
Philadelphia seemingly hit the reset button this offseason after parting ways with quarterback Carson Wentz in favor of second year pro Jalen Hurts. The Eagles will field one of their worst overall rosters in years, which is not an ideal scenario for first year Head Coach Nick Sirianni.
With Hurts as a dual threat, Philadelphia’s offense was much more productive, and now that they are boasting a healthy line after four of its five initial starters in 2020 missed at least half of the season. Now the issue won’t be injury, but seemingly age. With Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson all in their 30s, the unit could become fragile once again as the year goes on. Their skill group should be much improved as well with reigning Heisman winner DeVonta Smith now in fold. The tight end duo of Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz should continue to be an integral part in the offense, while Jalen Reagor will look to rebound after a disappointing rookie season.
On the defensive side, they still have a rather strong front four, as veterans Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Javon Hargrave will continue to wreak havoc on opposing lines. Despite a pair of Minnesota additions in linebacker Eric Wilson and safety Anthony Harris, the backend of the defense has worsened over the offseason. Even Darius Slay has regressed from the top five corner he was just a few seasons ago and while Steven Nelson is a formidable option to fill the hole on the opposite side that won’t be enough to keep opponents from lighting up the scoreboard.
The Eagles will face the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL, however a brutal 11-week stretch starting in Week 3 will consist of seven road games and home games against the two most recent Super Bowl participants, as well as New Orleans and the LA Chargers, none of which are considered easy games. Philadelphia has enough offensive prowess to not be a doormat in 2021, but will likely need more than a few upsets in order to avoid double digit losses once again.
2020 Record/Season Result: 12-4 / NFC West Champs / Lost Wild Card vs LAR 30-20
2021 Prediction: 11-6 (3-3) / #5 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 4 @ SF, Week 5 vs LAR (TNF), Week 10 @ GB, Week 15 @ LAR, Week 18 @ ARI
Seattle enters 2021 with high expectations after improving their season record each of the last four seasons.
Quarterback Russell Wilson was reliable as ever in 2020, posting career-highs in completion percentage (68.8%), passing touchdowns (40), and QBR (73.5). Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf were sensational as a result, finishing with an NFL-best 2,357 yards as a wide receiver duo and 20 touchdowns.
The offensive line has improved immensely over the last two seasons and will don three starters that finished as top 20 pass blockers among their positions, including savvy veteran Duane Brown and trade acquisition Gabe Jackson, while Damien Lewis finished as a top five run blocking guard in 2020. Tight end Gerald Everett could also be in store for a breakout season after being signed away from the division rival Rams.
Defensively they are led by the NFL’s best linebacker Bobby Wagner, who has graded out as a top two linebacker in three of the last four seasons. Safety Jamal Adams gets flack for his lack of interceptions, but he is as versatile as you can get as a pass rusher, finishing with 9.5 sacks, leading the team and nearly tripling the next highest NFL safety. The defensive line ranks towards the bottom of the NFL from a personnel perspective, but Seattle still has the majority of their front seven returning from a defense that finished top five against the run (95.6 yards allowed per game).
2020 first round pick Jordyn Brooks must show significant improvement while attempting to replace long-time Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright, who finished as a top 10 linebacker last season. The secondary was atrocious against the pass, finishing 31st in yards allowed (285.0) and could be in store for a similar year after losing their best corner Shaquill Griffin in free agency.
Their season success will be predicated on divisional performance. All four teams are capable of reaching double digit wins and a losing record within the division will leave any of those teams on the outside looking in. Seattle might have the most holes between the four teams, but they do possess by far the best quarterback. Sometimes that is just enough to get by and as long as the Seahawks do not rely too much on Wilson, they should by right in the thick of things come postseason time.
Los Angeles Rams
2020 Record/Season Result: 10-6 / Lost Div. Round 32-18
2021 Prediction: 10-7 (4-2) / #6 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 3 vs TB, Week 5 @ SEA (TNF), Week 12 @ GB, Week 15 vs SEA, Week 18 vs SF
Los Angeles made perhaps the biggest swing-for-the-fences move of the 2021 offseason, trading multiple first round picks and quarterback Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. From a talent perspective, it was a costly move that will significantly thin the roster over the next few seasons, but for the time being, it should put them in a position to contend for at least the next two seasons.
The offensive line is made up of four starters that finished with at least a grade of 70.0 or higher last season, allowing just 25 sacks, while also finishing as a top 10 rushing team. The Rams were dealt a huge early blow in training camp as Cam Akers, who was in store for a potential breakout year, ruptured his Achilles, ending his season before it even began. The subsequent trade for Sony Michel will help aid the loss, but it is safe to say the rushing attack will not be as strong as previously anticipated.
Despite the loss, Stafford should not be void of weapons in his first season in Los Angeles. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are both capable of securing 100 balls, while young receivers Van Jefferson and Tutu Atwell will compete with veteran DeSean Jackson as vertical threats.
The defense should be elite once again, led by three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, but will deal with significant losses on the back end with John Johnson III and Troy Hill departing in the offseason. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey still remains one of the best in the NFL in coverage, but the Rams will need Darious Williams to build on his breakout 2020 season, where he led the team in interceptions (4) and finished as the fourth-best graded corner in coverage (81.5).
The Rams will have the opportunity to get off to a hot start early in the season, and they will need to take advantage of that opportunity with a gruesome stretch after their Week 12 bye that includes three divisional games, as well as road games against Green Bay, Minnesota, and Baltimore. Los Angeles is as talented as any team in the NFC, but an extended playoff run will only happen if the Sean McVay/Matthew Stafford pairing instantly meshes. My gut feeling tells me the franchise may have to wait until 2022 to make a legitimate back to the Super Bowl.
2020 Record/Season Result: 8-8 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 9-8 (2-4) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 5 vs SF, Week 8 vs GB (TNF), Week 14 vs LAR (MNF), Week 17 @ DAL, Week 18 vs SEA
Arizona made significant strides in year two in the Kliff Kingsbury era, finishing .500 behind a breakout year from Kyler Murray, who rivals Lamar Jackson as the NFL’s most dynamic quarterback.
DeAndre Hopkins had yet another spectacular season in his first year in Arizona following the Texans debacle, finishing third in receptions (115) and yards (1,407), despite a lack of another consistent threat in the passing game. The Cardinals addressed that issue this offseason, bringing in seven-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green and 2021 draftee Rondale Moore, who was one of the fastest receivers in the class.
Running back Kenyan Drake has departed, so Chase Edmonds will look to expand into a larger role after catching 53 passes as a backup last season. The offensive line will boast one of the best pass blocking units in the NFL, with all five starters finishing with at least a 70.0, including D.J. Humphries coming off a breakout season and offseason acquisitions Rodney Hudson and Kelvin Beachem.
On the defensive side, Arizona added five-time first-team All-Pro J.J. Watt to pair with the returning Chandler Jones, who missed 11 games last year (pectoral). Since 2012, the duo rank one and two in the NFL in sacks, and while both are now in their 30s, they are still capable of being massive disruptors in 2021.
Drafting linebackers in the first round consecutive years, Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins will have free range to fly around and make plays in the middle of the field. They will be assisted by tackling sensation Budda Baker, who has eclipsed over 100 tackles from the safety position in each of the last three seasons.
Arizona will have to deal with the departures of starting cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick, and could be in for a struggle after free agent acquisition Malcolm Butler abruptly retired as preseason ended. That leaves Byron Murphy and veteran Robert Alford, who has not played a down since 2018 to fill the void.
Arizona’s season outlook will honestly come down to coaching. In a division filled with three coaches with Super Bowl experience, the Cardinals will be at a disadvantage in most of those matchups. The division will likely be represented in the playoffs by three teams, and in order for Arizona to avoid being the odd man out, they will need to step up in those big time games in order to approach the 10-win territory and clinch a playoff spot.
San Francisco 49ers
2020 Record/Season Result: 6-10 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 11-6 (3-3) / #2 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 3 vs GB (SNF), Week 10 vs LAR (MNF), Week 13 @ SEA, Week 16 @ TEN, Week 18 @ LAR
San Francisco’s Super Bowl hangover last season was as real as could be, but largely due to an unprecedented amount of injuries, with an NFL-high 31 players spending time on injured reserve last season. Jimmy Garoppolo’s unreliability from a healthy standpoint forced the 49ers’ hand, making an aggressive pre-draft move to eventually draft quarterback Trey Lance at the cost of three first round picks.
The quarterback battle has been intense throughout camp, foreshadowing a potential decision to opt for the rookie earlier than anticipated. Even if that move is made, San Francisco should be much improved this season, primarily because of the returns of several impact players. Wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk will combine with All-Pro tight end George Kittle to be one of the most lethal trios, regardless of who is throwing the ball. Raheem Mostert will return as well to pair with rookie Trey Sermon to make up a formidable run attack behind an offense line littered with talent. Trent Williams graded out as the NFL’ s best tackle (91.9) after missing the entire 2019 season with Washington due to a hold out, while Mike McGlinchey finished with the second-best grade as a run blocker (91.3) behind only Williams.
The defensive line that was dominant in 2019 suffered a massive regression, largely due to Nick Bosa and Dee Ford being lost for the season before we could get to Week 3, as well as an inability to replace defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who was traded away in the 2020 draft. With improvement from Javon Kinlaw, the unit should return to being one of the best in football this year. Fred Warner was the lone bright spot in 2020, breaking out and finishing as the highest graded linebacker (88.6), earning All-Pro honors as a result. The secondary will need to replace the departing Richard Sherman, but still possess quality starters in the secondary should they stay healthy.
Aside from the division, San Francisco has a relatively easy schedule and could find themselves starting the season strong. One of the main hiccups will be the transition between quarterbacks and when that will be executed, but the earlier, the better. The 49ers have a roster with the fewest question marks compared to their divisional foes, and if the quarterback situation is figured out, the team could be in store for big things in 2021.
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