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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.