The NFL season kicks off Thursday in Tampa Bay as the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers play host to the Dallas Cowboys. What better way to start the season than Tom Brady against Dak Prescott and America’s Team?
Will the Bucs be the team that earns the NFC spot in the Super Bowl on Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles? That’s for another day, actually, as we are here to look at the pretenders, dark horses and contenders from the 16 teams in the American Football Conference.
Will the Kansas City Chiefs make it three SB appearances in a row? Let’s see.
Two of the teams that start the season with the same mark as everyone else – 0-0 – but have no chance of making it to Los Angeles in February play in Week 1.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Congratulations, you won your first game in 2020 and lost every other one and wound up the prize of Trevor Lawrence in the NFL draft. Let’s hope the quarterback from Clemson somehow gets enough protection to survive his rookie season. Urban Meyer has stepped into a complete rebuild in the Sunshine State. This isn’t a playoff team. Not this year, anyway.
Houston Texans: Speaking of Clemson quarterbacks. One of the best in the league is Deshaun Watson. All signs point to the QB engulfed in controversy being deactivated for the opener against the Jaguars. With everything swirling around Watson, it’s pretty amazing how quiet things have been in Houston. Terrific quarterback deactivated without an injury and no one says a peep. Tells you how thick the troubles are. Tyrod Taylor isn’t leading Houston to the playoffs. The most interesting aspect of the games with the Jaguars is whether the winner of the first will sweep, leaving the loser in position to flirt with 0-17.
Cincinnati Bengals: Let’s hope Joe Burrow returns and remains upright after the knee injury cost him his rookie season. Zac Taylor needs to step it up in the win column to remain gainfully employed in Ohio. However, in a division with Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, this is not a team going to play after the 18th week of a 17-game season.
Las Vegas Raiders; All you need to know about how a trade backfired is the Raiders tried to see if the Bears were interested in sending Khalil Mack back to them this offseason. The Jon Gruden II Experiment seemed like a good idea. However, many good thoughts go awry.
New York Jets: Robert Saleh is a rookie head coach with a rookie quarterback in Zach Wilson. He’s in the sports media beehive of the world. Should the Jets lose at Carolina against Sam Darnold on Sunday, the honeymoon will be over. Oh, they aren’t going to the postseason. Miami, New England Buffalo will all finish ahead of Gang Green.
Denver Broncos: We will start off this category with a team nicknamed for horses. This is by the slimmest of margins from pretender to dark horse. Teddy Bridgewater knows how to win and the Broncos have a strong defense. That gives them a chance to find a way to earn a playoff spot as a Wild-Card team. It is highly unlikely. However, every challenge Bridgewater faces he conquers. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Los Angeles Chargers: While it is a long shot three teams from the AFC West would make the playoffs, look for the Bolts to revive and be a major pain to their foes in 2021. There is talent all over the field on offense and defense. If Brandon Staley can erase the special-teams nightmares that played the Chargers in past years, double-digit wins are plausible.
Miami Dolphins: Brian Flores and the Fish keep getting better. They almost made the playoffs last season before stumbling late. The biggest challenges are whether Tua Tagovailoa is an actual NFL quarterback and if they can somehow find a way to split the four games with New England and Buffalo. Going 1-3 or 0-4 would wreck playoff hopes and that mark is realistic.
New England Patriots: Bill Belichick is doing something in 2021 he didn’t do with Tom Brady, which is starting a rookie at QB in Mac Jones. The Patriots moved on from Cam Newton and spent a bunch of money in free agency. The combination of building chemistry with new faces in new places as well mentoring the rookie from Alabama will make this a test of the great coach’s brilliance. He could be up for it but will the players?
Pittsburgh Steelers: Going to push the Men of Steel out of Contender to Dark Horse. They flopped badly after starting 11-0 in 2020 and were throttled in the playoffs by the Cleveland Browns. Would be sweet for the script to have Ben Roethlisberger with one last big hurrah. This is the NFL, however, and those stories hardly play out … unless your name is Tom Brady.
Indianapolis Colts: Heading into the preseason, the Colts would have been among the contenders. However, the disruption of injuries, COVID-19 and vaccination conversation has Frank Reich & Co. at the top of the list in this category. Yes, we started the grouping with horses and are closing with another kind of equine.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills are big-time threats to make it all the way to the Super Bowl. The AFC playoffs will be a gauntlet for any team. However, Buffalo showed it is becoming a powerhouse in 2020 and should take the next step forward. Josh Allen is bordering on mega-star and it is only a matter of time before people start lauding Sean McDermott and picking assistants off his staff.
Tennessee Titans: Mike Vrabel has it all going for him. Charm, charisma and a great smile. He needs to make the Titans take the next step in the playoffs or else the trifecta won’t help him in the longer run. Derrick Henry and Julio Jones make a dynamic duo on offense. The defense does enough to guarantee double-digit wins. With the issues in Indy, look for the Titans to win their AFC South by open lengths. And then the drama builds …
Cleveland Browns: Kevin Stefanski worked miracles in his rookie season. What does he do for an encore? There are great expectations from Cleveland, a franchise that lowered the bar to nadir level. Now the fever chart is bursting in the other direction. One thing to do it when you are a dark horse, another when it is expected. Look for excitement and thrills in a season that could wind up with an AFC North crown.
Baltimore Ravens: Good thing John Harbaugh has Lamar Jackson at quarterback to also double as a rusher. The Ravens’ backfield is crumbling and they signed Le’Veon Bell as an insurance policy. That’s a risky investment. The time is now for Jackson to deliver in the postseason. Gaudy wins and stats in the regular season will become redundant if nothing happens deep in the playoffs.
Kansas City Chiefs: Three Super Bowl appearances in a row are the hurdle facing Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes and KC. They are the chalk but everyone knows that simply means you have a target on your uniform digits. This is a team built to win a lot of games and the AFC West. Getting back to the Super Bowl for redemption is going to be difficult because of the loaded AFC. However, if they can gain the bye and two home playoff games no one would be surprised to see the Chiefs make it a hat trick of visits to the championship game.
Detroit Lions: Highly caffeinated new coach Dan Campbell has brought some intrigue back to “The Motor City” with his passion and promise to turn the Lions into ferocious competitors once again, but it’s going to take time. This year is about establishing a culture and getting the younger players some reps, not making a run at the playoffs.
New York Giants: On paper, the Giants have weapons and potential, but they haven’t translated to the field during the Daniel Jones Era. There is limited reason to believe that will change this year as the teams enters the season with free agent acquisition Kenny Golladay already banged up and Saquon Barkley still working his way back to full health.
Chicago Bears: There is hope in Chicago as rookie QB Justin Fields looks like the long-term answer under center the Bears have been (checks calendar) forever, but the fact that he’s been relegated to the bench in favor of Andy Dalton to start the season tells you everything you need to know about Chicago’s playoff chances.
Philadelphia Eagles: Four years removed from winning the Super Bowl, the Eagles are a totally different team — different coach, different skill position players, different outlook. They could be frisky, and if Jalen Hurts can replicate what he did over his four starts last year over a full season, the timeline to return to contention will be accelerated, but for now, Philadelphia is an unknown quantity in the NFC East and outside of the playoff picture this year.
Atlanta Falcons: It’s easy to talk yourself into a quick rebound for “The Dirty Birds” after a bunch of perplexing losses and fourth-quarter follies, as well as the addition of Arthur Smith as head coach, but the defense is still lacking and the division remains ultra-competitive. Atlanta will be competitive, but they’re not Super Bowl contenders this season.
Arizona Cardinals: Arizona went from 5-10-1 in Kliff Kingsbury’s first season to 8-8 in Year Two. The Cardinals might put up points, but will they keep the opponents off the scoreboard? Playing in a loaded division with tough non-divisional matchups against Cleveland, Green Bay, and Dallas (plus a couple other potentially testy teams) makes it hard to see Kyler & Co. really improving over last year’s results.
Minnesota Vikings: The defense should be better this year and the trio of Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson is excellent. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they have to play the NFC West, the AFC North, and Green Bay twice, so beating up on Chicago and Detroit probably won’t be enough to get this team into the playoff mix.
Carolina Panthers: What if Sam Darnold, like Ryan Tannehill, just needed to get away from Adam Gase? Surrounded by weapons and a developing defense led by Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn, the former Top 5 pick — who is younger than Joe Burrow — could elevate a team that hung tough without Christian McCaffrey for most of last season into a team in the thick of the playoff mix this year.
Dallas Cowboys: Dallas might be the biggest high variance team in the NFL this season, as an improved defensive effort, good health, and a high-octane offence could produce a 12-5 season, a division title, and legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. But it’s just as plausible this team goes 5-12 as well, depending on how the rest of the NFC East shakes out and pairings with the AFC West and NFC South. An opening night date with the defending champs doesn’t help matters either.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints probably deserve to be in the Contenders grouping given that they were a fumble away from making the Super Bowl last year. Like Dallas, they’re a team where multiple different outcomes feel like they’re on the table, resulting in this wait-and-see placement. A lot hinges on whether Jameis Winston can avoid soul-crushing mistakes in crucial moments and their veterans still having another strong year in the tank. With AFC and NFC East assignments, an always competitive divisional slate, and additional games against Green Bay, Seattle, and Tennessee, anything between four wins and 13 wins feels possible.
Washington Football Team: In their first year under Ron Rivera, the Football Team won the NFC East and fought the eventual Super Bowl champions hard in the Wild-Card round, all with a cadre of sub-par quarterbacks lining up under center. Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t the long-term answer, but he’s better than everyone that was in town last season, and with bushels of young talent on both sides of the ball, Washington is destined to be no worse than a competitive squad no one wants to play, with the potential to win the division and make waves in the playoffs if everything breaks their way.
San Francisco 49ers: This team is better than the squad that carried a lead into the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl two seasons ago, and could be frightening on offense once Kyle Shanahan has the confidence to give Trey Lance the reins. The division is loaded, but facing the NFC North and the AFC South isn’t too daunting. Games against the Eagles, Bengals, and Falcons are all potential victories. They have depth at the skill positions and a talented front seven, so as long as San Francisco isn’t ravaged by injuries as they were last year, this team should be in the thick of the chase.
Seattle Seahawks: What if new OC Shane Waldron convinces Pete Carroll to just let Russ cook? Without a complete departure from the head coach’s preferred conservative style, the offense should be more dynamic this season. Credit the additions of Dee Eskridge and Gerald Everett, plus an improved line and tons of depth in the backfield. How the defense performs will hold the key to Seattle’s season.
Los Angeles Rams: The upside of this team is so high that losing second-year RB Cam Akers for the season hasn’t diminished their odds of advancing to the Super Bowl. The upgrade at QB to Matt Stafford should unlock the full force of Sean McVay’s offense, and the defense remains solid with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey causing havoc for quarterbacks. Their Week 3 game against Tampa Bay is an early season, must-see matchup that feels like a playoff preview and should be instructive.
Green Bay Packers: The Pack going 6-0 in the division isn’t out of the question. Joe Barry taking over the defensive play calling should give the front seven more opportunities to be disruptive and put the defensive backs in better position, while having No. 12 under center with a strong supporting cast around him means the offence should be humming once again this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Rarely do the defending champions bring everybody back, but that’s exactly what Tampa Bay did this year. There might be some more difficult matchups than anticipated in their AFC and NFC East assignments, but adding the Patriots, Bears, and Colts to their divisional slate could be worse. This team is flush with talent and played too well together down the stretch and through the playoffs to expect anything less than a return to the postseason, with back-to-back Super Bowl wins a real possibility.