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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.