2021 NFC Playoff Picks

It was a wild start to the decade in the NFL. COVID-19 was a major reason for last year’s smaller attendance and eye-opening play. The incumbent Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers set records last season and miraculously retained most of their winning roster. Outside of Tampa, the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams are the top picks to challenge for a Super Bowl appearance. As expectations and hope arise for all sixteen teams, let’s see which teams have the best shot at making the 2021 playoffs.

NFC North: Green Bay Packers

Packers tight-end Robert Tonyan had a breakout third year and was a reliable target in the redzone. He should improve his game in 2021 since this is Aaron Rodgers’ last season in Green Bay.

This is franchise star Aaron Rodgers’ last season in Wisconsin, cementing the Packers return as favorites in the famed black and blue division.

Minnesota’s defense can’t cover receivers or rush the passer consistently. It’ll be seen when they play Los Angeles, Seattle and Arizona. Detroit could be a challenge with a run-first offense, but their defense needs to close out games in second halves versus quality opponents and division rivals. The Chicago Bears added some key players in the draft and free agency. Eddie Goldman returns to bolster the defensive line and both Justin Fields and Andy Dalton are fresh faces for the quarterback position. The offensive line is a weak point that may not be figured out until middle of the season, and the Packers with Aaron Rodgers aren’t a team to make mistakes against in the standings.

The Packers’ defense got better in last season’s latter half and was a reason they almost made the Super Bowl (despite Kevin Kings’ blatant pass interference penalty). Both Za’Darius and Preston Smith stepped up on pass rush and coverage when they needed to. Jaire Alexander is an underrated name at the cornerback position and Adrian Amos is thriving at free safety.

Za’Darius (55, left) and Preston (91, right) Smith were a nightmare duo in the Packers’ 14-2 season. Both defensive ends should continue to cause chaos on opposing offensive lines and step up more in pivotal games.

Rodgers’ targets Marquez Valdez-Scantling, Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan took the next steps to becoming reliable targets for whoever the quarterback in Green Bay is. Look for these three guys to add even more to their game this year and become leaders for when Rodgers moves on.

South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints

In last year’s preview, I described this division as, “the haves and have-nots”. It’s still under that title since the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons chose to “re-build” and “re-tool” in ways that sets them back for the future. The Saints and current Super Bowl champions want to face each other in the playoffs for a second straight year.

Tampa Bay re-signed almost all their stars from last season. Chris Godwin was franchise tagged while Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette and Rob Gronkowski took less money in order to return to the Super Bowl. General manager Jason Licht paid good money re-signing Lavonte David and Shaquil Barrett to multi-year deals. The Buccaneers believe they didn’t play their best game of the season (even in the Super Bowl) because the unit didn’t have much time to practice together and learn Bruce Arians’ and Todd Bowles’ schemes. An added regular season game gives the returning roster the chance and time to perfect execution. Tampa isn’t just the favorite to repeat a championship win, but they’re favorites to win first in the NFC South because they have depth and incredible talent at every position no other team in the NFL can replicate.

The return of Vita Vea was too much for Green Bay and Kansas City to handle in the playoffs. While David and Barrett are the big name pass rushers, Vea is the true threat offensive lines need to neutralize in order to set a tempo.

If Tampa somehow doesn’t win first place in the NFC South, it’s because New Orleans breaks out and returns to form on offense before Drew Brees withered. Jameis Winston is the favorite to start and while he is known for turnovers, he’s a quarterback who makes receivers better and isn’t afraid to go deep. One year backing up Brees and learning what Sean Payton expects of a franchise passer going forward is what Winston needed after five up-and-down seasons in Tampa Bay. The former number one pick has the receivers to work with in Michael Thomas, Tre’Quan Smith, Deonte Harris and Nick Vannett. If he keeps the turnover ratio low, the Saints will be one of the hardest teams to beat in the league.

New Orleans has the players on defense to stifle an offensively deep team like the Buccaneers. Marshon Lattimore is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Malcolm Jenkins gets better the older he gets and Marcus Williams are a great safety tandem. David Onyemata’s six game suspension hurts the pass rush and could be the team’s weak spot. Cam Jordan can’t be the main guy sacking quarterbacks all season. Marcus Davenport and Shy Tuttle need to step up in order for this defense to be as stout as their champion division rival.

NFC West: Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

The two teams with the most pressure to win right now are the Seahawks and the Rams. Both made headline trades the past two years in order to stand out in the playoffs and win another championship in the 21st century. This offseason, Seattle wasn’t splashy like the other three teams, but they conducted necessary steps in the right direction to appease star quarterback Russell Wilson. Los Angeles did the opposite completing a blockbuster trade with Detroit for veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Seahawks added muscle on defense while the Rams re-signed breakout defenders.

General manager John Schneider’s made necessary moves first trading for guard Gabe Jackson. He solidifies an offensive line where the only weakness is starting center Ethan Pocic’s health for 17 games. Schneider signed former Ram tight end Gerald Everett after the trade for Jackson. Everett is a good target if/when Will Dissly isn’t on the field. Coach Pete Carroll brought in another Ram Shane Waldron to be the new offensive coordinator and passing game coach. Seattle’s offense with Brian Schottenheimer crumbled when opposing defenses expected deep-ball throws and adjustments weren’t made. Waldron and Everett can implement a better, layered system that ensures Seattle takes control of games early and often against quality opponents.

The Seahawks traded for offensive guard Gabe Jackson with Las Vegas. While his development faltered last season, Jackson excels in pass protection and is a good fit for a team that’s creative offensively.

For the first time since 2013, Seattle’s front seven looks championship caliber. The addition of Carlos Dunlap II as a pass-rush threat solidified Seattle with one of the best defenses the remaining six weeks of the last year’s regular season. Despite the score against the rival Rams in the playoffs, the defense was a reason they played them close. In the offseason, Dunlap re-signed for less money and the Seahawks added more pass-rush. The front consists of L.J. Collier, Benson Mayowa, Alton Robinson and interior tackles Poona Ford and Rasheem Green. The signings of Kerry Hyder Jr. and Robert Nkemdiche gives the Seahawks seven players to rest and substitute in pivotal games, an advantage when playoffs approach.

Even though Jarran Reed went to Kansas City, Seattle’s pass rush is crucial to how well the rest of the defense plays. Shaquill Griffin signed to Jacksonville, so the top cornerbacks will be D.J. Reed and Ahkello Witherspoon. While star safety Jamal Adams was re-signed, his partner Quandre Diggs is a free agent after the season. The pair’s shown they work well together from the short time had in the secondary. They play well especially with dominating pass-rush or in deep pass coverage. Added help from Marquise Blair (coming back from a torn ACL) and Ryan Neal can ease pressure off the top two corners.

One of the most underrated safeties in the NFL, Ryan Neal (35) filled in well when Jamal Adams was out with injuries. Look for Neal to have an expanded roll in the secondary this season.

Rams coach Sean McVay has the most pressure on him out of all four head coaches. He didn’t like working with Jared Goff, so he has another chance to show his offensive system with a quality passer in Stafford. There are more issues Los Angeles has to address this season. Starting runningback Cam Akers tore his achilles the first day of training camp. The Rams will use a number of runningbacks for competition starting with Darrell Henderson Jr. Henderson’s sophomore season was better but he’s not someone who scares defenses stopping the run.

Look for Los Angeles to throw the ball at least 70% of offensive possessions. An aging offensive line and lack of receiver depth could cause all three teams in the NFC West to blitz more than the previous two or three years. Outside of division games, the Rams play the best defenses in the league, starting with Chicago September 12th. If McVay and company have a winning record going into their bye week, they’ll be a top three team in the NFC.

The San Francisco 49ers had a rough 2020 season. They started with no fans in their own stadium and ended where they shared home games in State Farm Stadium with the Arizona Cardinals. It was the third season Kyle Shanahan’s team was plagued by injuries, highlighted again by quarterback Jimmy Garappolo.

Quarterback Trey Lance (right) is the talk in Northern California, but rookie runningback Trey Sermon (center) is the one to watch this season. Sermon joins a deep runningback group with Jeff Wilson Jr., Wayne Gallman Jr. and Raheem Mostert. He could get the biggest workload of the four.

Trey Lance will be the quarterback of the future, but the returns of not just Garappolo but defensive phenom Nick Bosa ensure the 49ers are one of the more underrated teams this season. DeMeco Ryans has large shoes to fill with the departure of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to the New York Jets, but he’s anchored a defense as a captain before. If San Francisco clinches the seventh seed, they’ll give teams in the conference headaches ranging from their balanced running attack and massive wide-receivers to their attack-first front five and aggressive secondary. They just need to stay healthy for around twelve games this season.

NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

Yes, last year featured the worst division winner in NFL history. There are hopes this year’s division winner won’t be under .500. Washington is inept at quarterback, Philadelphia is re-building most of their roster and the New York Giants are in absolute turmoil (seriously? a whole roster brawl to kick off training camp?). This leaves Dallas as the easy pick in the east.

Credit Mike McCarthy for wanting quarterback Dak Prescott to ease into both practice and onto the field after gruesome ankle injuries last season and shoulder issues in training camp. The addition of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will make Dallas a fun, must-watch team. Most analysts and fans don’t have an NFC east team making it far in the playoffs, but if Quinn makes the Cowboys defense look anything similar to Seattle’s Legion of Boom during his tenure, Dallas has a shot to win at least one playoff game.

CeeDee Lamb is a reason Dallas could win their division. The Cowboys will be a different team with a healthy Dak Prescott balancing out who catches passes on critical drives.

2021 AFC Playoff Picks

It was a wild start to the decade in the NFL. COVID-19 was a major reason for a lot of last year’s lack of attendance and eye-opening play. After the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl in early 2020 the rest of the AFC invested heavily on pass rush defensively and better blocking on offensive lines. As we look ahead to another fun and high expectation-filled start to the 2021 season, questions focus on Kansas City’s chances to make their third straight Super Bowl versus better built teams in Indianapolis, Cleveland and Denver.

AFC South: Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts

There are many surprise picks in this conference for 2021 due to untapped potential, better coaching/stability and the seventh playoff spot. This division seems the simplest because the Colts and Titans have better rosters, coaching and management over Jacksonville and Houston. The only debate could be who wins the division.

Indianapolis needed a new and younger quarterback once Philip Rivers retired after a playoff loss in Buffalo. The Colts added former first overall pick Eric Fisher at left tackle to compliment the best offensive guard in the league. Sadly, Carson Wentz and offensive guard Quinton Nelson suffered the same foot injury their first week of training camp. They’ll be out a few more weeks and may come back in October (max). DeForest Buckner, Rob Windsor and J.J. Nelson had additional injuries and the Colts can’t enter a tight race banged up with a low-vaccinated roster especially since coach Frank Reich caught COVID-19.

Tennessee’s Derrick Henry steamrolled a lot of defenses last year, including Indianapolis’ twice.

Indianapolis has a lot to manage and figure out and although they may not win the division, the defense led by Darius Leonard and Xavier Rhodes ensures when Wentz and Nelson fully adjust and return at full health, they can win a number of games to get back into the playoffs. It will just be harder to face teams on the road for three games rather than having at least one or two home games.

Indianapolis’ lack of health and the belief of an 0-3 start (Seahawks, LA Rams and Titans the first three weeks. Yikes!) are the Tennessee Titans’ gain. It’s possible the Titans struggle with their first half of the schedule like the Colts do. If that happens the division outlook shifts. For now, Tennessee gets the benefit of the doubt. The addition of Julio Jones takes double coverage off of A.J. Brown. Josh Reynolds and Anthony Firkser should have break-through seasons. Then there’s the best runningback in the league dishing out punishment to defenses (see above).

Speaking of defenses, Tennessee’s was awful last season. In the offseason, they overhauled the secondary, signed Bud Dupree in the offseason and added DeNico Autry for the defensive front. Drafting defensive players in the first four rounds and coaxing Janoris Jenkins to lock up a cornerback position will make this an interesting team to watch early in September. Their divisional game against the Colts aside, they need to pressure quarterbacks Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson and Zach Wilson to show they’re different from last year’s division winning team.

AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos

First glance, it’s a no-brainer the Kansas City Chiefs win this division. Look closer and it’s closer than many expect. Denver and Los Angeles should improve this year and the Raiders found the blueprint on how to beat the Chief offense.

Teammates again: Frank Clark and Jarran Reed reunite in Kansas City with another chance to make a Super Bowl trip together.

That said, don’t expect the Raiders to do much. Their overhaul of the offensive line and chaotic secondary ensures this team will finish last. It’s possible the Chargers snatch a playoff spot if either the Colts or Titans fall behind and can’t patch up their issues on defense.

The two teams to focus on are Denver and Kansas City. I’m not sold on Chiefs general manager Brett Veach’s tinkering of the roster. Cutting Eric Fisher and trading for Orlando Brown Jr. is a head scratching move when they could’ve had both. Kyle Long came out of retirement to start at right guard. There were good signings such as center pick Creed Humphrey to back up free agent addition Austin Blythe. This helps quarterback Patrick Mahomes II see the middle of the field. He’ll have to throw the ball more since runningback depth dropped off minus the addition of Jerick McKinnon. One figures injuries will be a factor and questions arise on depth along the rest of the line. This means Mahomes will be relied on more. The receiving core is solid, yet there are questions on Travis Kelce and if he can continue his production at 31.

Veach didn’t address the cornerback position, a red flag considering Brashad Breeland wasn’t re-signed after two straight Super Bowl appearances and Charvarius Ward was burned by Buccaneer wide-outs. While Tyrann Mathieu and Daniel Sorensen are a solid safety duo, they can’t defend everyone. Frank Clark’s court trials spoil a bulked up defensive front that added Jarran Reed from Seattle and Taco Charlton. Overall, Kansas City didn’t scare many teams after blowing out the New York Jets last year, but they are the conference pick and have earned it because of how the other 15 teams have yet to play better.

At opposite, Denver and coach Vic Fangio are in win-now mode. What happened with the Broncos last year wasn’t poor game planning. There was a period the Broncos averaged three season-ending injuries a day, something unheard of in sports. Sophomore receiver Jerry Jeudy can relax knowing he won’t have the pressure to catch every third down pass. Cortland Sutton, Noah Fant, KJ Hamler and Tim Patrick should grow more since they’re all back from season ending injuries. Even if quarterback Drew Lock falters, Teddy Bridgewater’s veteran play shows his reliability and calm under duress. It helps Melvin Gordon III is the full starter and should gain the yards when needed.

Denver’s Vic Fangio is one of the best defensive minds of all time, but his offense needs to score at least 24 points if he wants to keep his head coaching title.

The Denver defense should shine with the returns of Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and Kareem Jackson. Kyle Fuller was signed quickly after Chicago surprisingly put him on waivers and incoming general manager George Paton drafted Pat Surtain II. While many question how will defenses perform with major additions, almost no one questions Vic Fangio-led defenses. They won’t win the West, but Denver is a playoff caliber team most AFC rosters won’t want to play.

AFC North: Cleveland Browns

Probably the second easiest division to decipher in the conference. The Bengals aren’t a team that can compete against their division rivals, much less outside it. Their re-build continues if last year’s number one pick Joe Burrow keeps his legs whole. Pittsburgh faded fast after an eye-opening 11-0 start, never recovering and Ben Roethlisberger looked past his prime. It’s possible they go 9-8 because Mike Tomlin does enough for his players to stay .500 at worst.

Former Raven receiver Willie Snead IV went off on offensive coordinator Greg Roman for the lack of development with Lamar Jackson and the receiving core. Jackson wants to stop running the ball ten times a game (minimum). The rest of the offense agrees, yet general manager Eric DeCosta might have made it worse. Sammy Watkins isn’t the receiver to bet on when free agents Kenny Golladay and A.J. Green were available. The loss of pass rusher Matt Judon will be felt on defense. It could get ugly for Baltimore when the season starts.

The Browns have the best…offensive line in the NFL. Combined with the runningback tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Cleveland can be a top five offense.

Two years ago, yours truly wasn’t sold on the Cleveland Browns winning a division title. Many things had to go right for coaching, quarterback play and defense. Two years later, the Browns have answered with a quality coach in Kevin Stefanski, better maturity and efficient play from Baker Mayfield and re-tooling on defense that can ensure the team can go deeper in the playoffs. First round pick Denzel Ward, free agent addition John Johnson III and the return of Grant Delpit ensure the secondary can take a minimum one step forward since last year’s secondary was porous.

Cleveland’s roster on offense will be hard to stop with the their receiving depth, a top five offensive line in football and the best runningback tandem. The laughingstock days of the Cleveland Browns are officially over.

AFC East: New York Jets, Miami Dolphins

The west will be a fun watch, but the east is the best division to tune into this year. Buffalo returns one win away from a Super Bowl trip, Bill Belichick added high profile players to the Patriots this offseason, Miami is showing progress in their rebuild and the New York Jets have the coach and quarterback duo they wanted.

Dolphins star cornerback Xavien Howard recorded double digit interceptions last year. Howard was rewarded the contract extension he wanted this summer.

People criticize Lamar Jackson for the things Josh Allen (and Kyler Murray) does. Allen’s a running quarterback who posted career highs last season. Despite his success with Stefon Diggs, a terrible Chiefs secondary found the formula to stop long Bills drives. Allen’s shown he can get his team the three points, but not the seven against a top team like Kansas City. It happened early in the regular and postseason. It’s possible the Bills had their best season with their quarterback and coach duo.

New England added a lot of key names to their team, but will it help in the middle of their schedule? The Patriots open up against two division rivals, New Orleans and then the champion Buccaneers led by Tom Brady. Their best receivers are tight-ends, and they can’t carry the passing game if the best wideout is Nelson Agholor. Their bye is week 14, with Tennessee and Indianapolis before that. Bill Belichick is one of the best coaches in the game and anything can happen, but it’s possible the Patriots miss the playoffs again.

The Jets are the upset pick to win this title in any of the eight divisions. There’s a lot to love about this team. At the top, Robert Saleh is a coach with a working brain (something many people thought Adam Gase did not have). He’s creative, aggressive and builds his players up in every facet of the game. Watch out for New York’s improvement in coverage and pass rush with Saleh’s coaching. They could well be a top ten or top five defense in the league.

The passing game was why the Jets were one of the worst football teams anyone watched the past 15 years. Trading Sam Darnold to Carolina and drafting Zach Wilson second overall should innovate the offense. Their main strength is the offensive line. Adam Gase couldn’t identify his playmakers at runningback and it showed with his option to start almost 40 year old Frank Gore over Le’Michal Perine. Perine should’ve been a playmaker and a leader on offense. He has the chance with Saleh as coach and will be paired with newcomer Tevin Coleman. The two could be the underrated backfield duo to watch out for. The receiving group rounds out to Braxton Berrios, Jamison Crowder, Corey Davis, Denzel Mims and D.J. Montgomery. They showed flashes last year despite a terrible gameplan. No doubt they’ll improve and give defenses problems.

One of the most underrated players in the NFL, Braxton Berrios highlights a deep receiving group for the New York Jets that can take off with proper coaching.

Second place in the east will go to the team with better roster depth. Brian Flores proved he’s the right coach moving forward. He’s a big reason the Dolphins were in the middle of the standings instead of the bottom. Jacoby Brissett was signed to backup and assist franchise quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a move that should pay off when November rolls around. First round pick Jaylen Waddle boosts the receiving core already comprised of DeVante Parker, Preston Williams, Allen Hurns, Albert Wilson and reliable tight-end Mike Gesicki. The defense should be, if not more consistent than last year. Tua’s second year steps forward and a running game that can give a rising offense balance should secure Miami a playoff spot and maybe more.

Can the Tampa Bay Lightning Three-peat?

Lightning coach Jon Cooper celebrates with his team after winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships

In early July, the Tampa Bay Lightning accomplished something only one team this century and eight NHL teams had: they repeated as Stanley Cup Champions. When the play clock reached four zeros and players started celebrating, the other 30 teams were both relieved and excited. Relief over the season finally reaching the end and excitement for who could be poached from the champion’s roster.

The 2020-21 champions had a roster of unparalleled depth top to bottom most hockey fans hadn’t seen since the Detroit Red Wings of two to three decades ago. The salary cap didn’t increase, and it lead to cap casualties before the expansion draft. The roster celebrated their accomplishment and partied hard, yet not even a week and a half passed when general manager Julien BriseBois traded the rights of Barclay Goodrow to the New York Rangers. Then the draft came.

Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Blake Coleman and Luke Schenn were either drafted, signed or traded to different teams. Their famed third line was gone less than 12 hours into free agency. However Tampa did retain some of the depth, finding enough money to re-sign Cal Foote, Ross Colton and Alex Barre-Boulet.

In free agency, the Lightning brought back Zach Bogosian and added fresh faces in Corey Perry, Brian Elliott and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Perry and Bellemare are to replenish and fill space on the third line. The Elliott signing ensures depth and veteran presence when starter Andrei Vasilevskiy needs rest in the regular season. The debate among hockey analysts and fans after these signings are the chances Tampa Bay has to win a third straight title, something last decade’s Penguins team failed to do.

Former Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian returns to the current champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The added depth on defense helps whoever’s in net.

Last article, the Florida Panthers stood out as a team rapidly becoming a Stanley Cup contender. Tampa’s additions of Bellemare and Perry fit because they can both score and play physically. They’re third or fourth line players. The retained depth ensures Barre-Boulet or Colton is promoted as the last of the three line-mates. Foote, Barre-Boulet/Colton and Mathieu Joseph round out the fourth line. Additional depth will come from minor leaguers having a chance to prove themselves.

Defense and goaltender won’t be an issue, but depth offensively could be if injuries arrive early season. The Lightning and Panthers are solid playoff candidates. Toronto is still on the rise and the Boston Bruins haven’t shown decline. The Metropolitan will be tight with both the Rangers and Islanders being favorites and the Capitals and Penguins reliable in their playoff trips. Tampa has to be in the top four of the Atlantic for a favorable playoff spot.

They’ll face everyone’s best starting with Pittsburgh on October 12th. If they cruise into the playoffs around the number five seed (minimum), their state rivals and New York’s metropolitan teams could be the serious bets to send them home without a parade.

While he isn’t known for scoring 20+ goals a season, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is needed veteran depth and could be a solid third line contributor. He’ll be tested early on by a lot of Tampa’s division rivals.

Until the Rangers show they’re the real deal, and the Islanders and Panthers win definitively over the Lightning in a playoff series, this team is the sure bet to win three in a row and begin the first dynasty of the 21st century.

Jdsportscorner.wordpress.com is Bringing Back Polls!

As the Olympics concluded August 8th, there were performances we’ll see as memorable and historic. Well, now you can vote for which ones you liked most! The 2021 Tokyo Olympics poll is up! Who would you say were your most memorable or favorite gold-medal performances?

Anyone who’s read from here or followed Pro Talk’s facebook page before the decade knows polls like this help this page and are a part of my work since I’ve started this from the ground up. A lot of you have been wanting me to do a poll for a long time, and now the chance is here.

Please read the instructions for this fun event. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments below. The three populous votes will be featured in a September article on site, and Pro Talk’s Wesley Woods and yours truly will write out our three best separately.


– Vote for three and three only (more than three nullifies your full vote)

– Don’t vote on more than one account (votes on two accounts of one person will be nullified)

– Only those who won at least one gold medal qualify for votes. Do not add someone who took silver/bronze only. That vote won’t count, however, if you think of a different name/team that did win gold and that performance stood out, you’re free to add it to the list of options.

The link for the poll is below


The Next Big Rivalry: What to Make of the Florida Panthers

(From left to right) MacKenzie Weegar, Noel Acciari and Jonathan Huberdeau celebrate a goal. While Huberdeau is a first line scorer, both Weegar and Acciari have thrived in depth and defensive roles.

The Tampa Bay Lightning repeated as Stanley Cup Champions in Amalie Arena with a cheering, sold-out crowd. Andrei Vasilevskiy was named most valuable player in the playoffs. Nikita Kucherov was intoxicated ten minutes after hoisting the trophy on ice. As much as it pains some folks to admit, Montreal wasn’t the toughest team the Lightning faced in the playoffs. Fans and analysts alike wondered, talked on and shared views on who they thought gave the back-to-back champions their hardest fight.

Keith Jones opened up the topic post-game saying Florida was by far Tampa’s toughest series. He wasn’t alone in this thinking.

Analysts Bill Lindsay and Mark Parrish agreed. Lindsay discussed Florida’s offensive pressure (minus game six) giving Vasilevskiy trouble and engaging the Lightning in multiple fights early to stay edgy. Parrish gave credit to coach Joel Quenneville for offensive growth and capitalizing on Vasilevskiy’s one-on-one weaknesses.

The New York Islanders were close to reaching the finals and would have if Tampa wasn’t in the playoffs. Outside of them, the Florida Panthers are a top pick to reach and even win the cup finals in the next year or two. The offense is top five and they’ve accumulated some of the best coaching in the league.

After Quenneville’s first season, Bill Zito was hired as general manager to build a roster needing better defense. Adding Radko Gudas, Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling were good starts. Zito added depth as physical and gritty as Tampa’s third and fourth line, signing Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Lomberg, Anthony Duclair and Mason Marchmant.

Florida’s Ryan Lomberg emerged as a possible star and pest when he fought most of Tampa’s roster this postseason, including the hard-hitting, former captain Ryan McDonagh.

Goaltending is a weak-spot, but it’s possible Zito’s found solutions. Before the pandemic, Sam Montembeault played like a draft steal with starter Sergei Bobrovsky faltering. While Chris Driedger was drafted by the expansion Seattle Kraken, Spencer Knight could compete for the starting spot. He’s the first goaltender born in the 21st century to win a regular and postseason game. His intensified focus in elimination games makes him play better.

The Panthers are mirroring the process Tampa Bay uses. A deep, offensively gifted roster, a physical and passionate third and fourth line and added depth on defense. Both teams are relocated back in the Atlantic division and face pressure to get back into the playoffs within a stacked eastern conference.

This figures to be what the Battle of Alberta was since both teams are two of the best in the league. Florida has ways to go before they can topple the Lightning, yet there are ways to accomplish this.

  • Better special teams: The biggest areas of improvement. Main talk centered on goaltending before Spencer Knight got the go in the playoffs, and Montembeault can further develop with Driedger gone. Fixing the penalty kill is a need. The lethal combination of Steven Stamkos on one end and a healthy Nikita Kucherov on the other overwhelmed the Panthers early and often. The absence of Aaron Ekblad is one reason, but the d-core of Weegar, Montour and Forsling need to step up (especially the latter two since they’re on a playoff team). On the other end, the power play for the Panthers was average at best in the regular season and held the team back in the playoffs. Florida’s power play numbers were abysmal going one-for-eight, zero-for-four, two-for-three, two-of-13, one-of-seven and zero-for-two in six games. Outside of the third game, that’s terrible for a team that’s top five in the league on offense. The power play is where Florida should excel when at least an extra man is on ice, not hurting them the longer a series goes.
  • Defense from star players: It’s something all teams go through with star players. How bad do Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Frank Vatrano want to get past the Lightning and win a championship? This is what made Nikita Kucherov, the best player after winning league MVP in the 2018-19 season and Steven Stamkos, after scoring 50+ goals in three seasons evolve. The extra edge while keeping games high scoring is a step closer to getting past the defending champs.
One thing Florida must improve on are better fights earlier in games versus their state rival. It sets a different tone than wanting to fight at the end of games.
  • Better timed and consistent fighting: The first two games of the series were some of the best games in the first round and brought back memories of old-school hockey. The league doesn’t have a lot of that right now and the Panthers can use that as the winning formula moving forward. Game one resulted in four lead changes, four power play goals, 17 minor penalties, 34 penalty minutes, 79 shots on goal and one suspension. Florida won game five as a response from game four’s one-sided score, but that game four is a good contrast from game one. The fighting, penalties and even Anthony Duclair’s slash on Kucherov went too far and weren’t centered on competition. Playing more physical from game one when the series is even means more than dirty play trailing by four.
  • Staying reliable on offense: Florida’s offense was up and down the six game series. Usually a team consistently scoring an average of three or four goals a game, 14 of the 17 goals were scored in three games. They won two of those three. When they scored two or under, they lost the remaining three. Granted, Andrei Vasilevskiy wound up continuing his undefeated streak after losing one game (a major reason he won the playoff MVP trophy). The Panther offense had one game where they had under 30 shots at the net. Not every goal will be easy or clean to score, but they should feel good knowing there’s continued growth and consistency on offense to make them a true threat.

Everyone will look at the Islanders, New York Rangers and the Carolina Hurricanes as top teams to de-throne Tampa and make the cup finals. Those teams need to take Florida just as serious if not more since coach Quenneville’s team has yet to hit its peak.

Quarterback D’Eriq King becomes the first college athlete to sign a NIL deal with a pro sports team, choosing the Florida Panthers. The team is gaining popularity, something they haven’t had since the mid-1990s. Improved play and a rivalry with Tampa Bay should continue that trend.