The AFC enters 2021 filled with exciting young quarterback talent with plenty of uncertainty of how the field of seven playoff spots will shape out.
The Kansas City Chiefs remain the cream of the crop after back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. The Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns enter the year as legitimate contenders for the first time in essentially three decades. The Ravens will look to continue making noise with their electrifying quarterback, while the Steelers look to make one last run with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm.
The Chargers, Dolphins, and Bengals will all look to take that second-year leap with their young signal callers as well. Indianapolis took a chance on rejuvenating the career of former MVP candidate Carson Wentz and Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill with have his fair share of weapons to make another playoff run.
You have Bill Belichick opting to go with rookie Mac Jones in a rebound season, while Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson will attempt to bring their respective franchises back to relevancy. Can Derek Carr or Teddy Bridgewater help break a run of mediocrity for the Raiders and Broncos? Oh, and then you have whatever Houston is trying to accomplish.
A Peek Into the Season…
With exciting narratives of redemption and chips on shoulders-a-plenty, essentially every franchise the American Football Conference believes they have the opportunity to end the year on a positive note. Some will. Most will come up short. And the rest, well, they will probably hit the reset button altogether. 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!
2020 Record/Season Result: 12-4 / AFC North Champs / Lost Wild Card vs CLE 48-37
2021 Prediction: 9-8 (3-3) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 6 vs SEA (SNF), Week 8 @ CLE, Week 15 vs TEN, Week 17 vs CLE (MNF), Week 18 @ BAL
The Steelers enter 2021 as a bit of an unknown following a lackluster ending to their season last year. After starting the year 11-0, the last remaining unbeaten team went on to lose five of their last six, including a trouncing at home against the division rival Browns.
It is difficult to imagine Pittsburgh returning to mediocrity considering they have not posted a losing record since Head Coach Mike Tomlin took over in 2007. They underwent a massive overhaul along the offensive line and will be expecting four new starters, a unit that ranks 31st entering 2021, according to PFF. Even with the addition of 1st round pick Najee Harris, it does not inspire confidence they will be able to move the ball on a consistent basis after appearing quite stagnant in the latter part of last year. Wide receivers Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Chase Claypool were very productive as a trio, with each eclipsing 60 receptions and 800 yards and combining for 27 touchdowns.
One strength that will be guaranteed will be Pittsburgh’s ability to get to the QB. Led by 2020 sacks leader T.J. Watt, the Steelers have led the NFL in sacks in every year since 2017. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has also been sensational since joining Pittsburgh via trade in 2019 with 12 takeaways and three touchdowns, leading to two straight first-team All-Pro nods. Swapping Bud Dupree for veteran Melvin Ingram and returning eight starters will keep a stout defensive unit among the NFL’s best.
In what could very well be Big Ben Roethlisberger’s swan song, the Steelers have enough talent to remain competitive. A brutal ending to their schedule that consists of Minnesota, Tennessee, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Baltimore twice will make or break their season. While the AFC North is capable of repeating three playoff contenders, I would put Pittsburgh behind both Cleveland and Baltimore and on the outside looking in on a potential Wild Card berth.
2020 Record/Season Result: 11-5 / Lost Div. Round @ BUF 17-3
2021 Prediction: 11-6 (3-3) / #5 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 2 vs KC (SNF), Week 5 vs IND (MNF), Week 14 @ CLE, Week 17 vs LAR, Week 18 vs PIT
2020 was a season that was supposed to end up at the very least an AFC Championship appearance after an NFL-best 14-2 the year prior. A COVID-19 outbreak hit the team midseason, including their quarterback Lamar Jackson, resulting in losing four of their next five, a deficit too much to overcome after Pittsburgh’s hot start to begin the year. Baltimore managed to end the regular season on a five game win streak and also upset the Titans, avenging their divisional round exit in 2019.
Since Lamar Jackson took over as a starter in November of 2018, no NFL team, aside from Kansas City, has been more consistent as a contender. Jackson’s 75.6% win percentage ranks 3rd among all active NFL quarterbacks behind Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. Lamar’s lackluster ending to the year after being knocked out of the game in the second half against Buffalo should motivate the 2019 MVP to show up and show out against the NFL’s elite come January. The Ravens’ 32nd ranked passing attack should be more of a threat following the additions of 1st round pick Rashod Bateman and veteran Sammy Watkins.
The Ravens also did a fine job masking the departure of Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. after the additions of veterans Kevin Zeitler and Alejandro Villanueva. Gus Edwards, however, will be asked to step into a massive role as the lead back following the offseason departure of Mark Ingram and season-ending injuries to J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill in the preseason. Le’Veon bell will help from a depth perspective, but don’t expect the former Steeler to be a game changer like he was four years ago.
The defense still possesses a top three secondary unit, where the dynamic duo of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters were the only pair of teammates to be graded among the Top 10 cornerbacks in 2020. They will be looking for a major leap of improvement from linebacker Patrick Queen after the 2020 rookie finished the year 82nd out of 83 qualifying linebackers (29.7), including being one of the bottom three against the run and the pass.
Baltimore should enjoy a strong start to the year, however the season will get very interesting after their Week 8 bye. Starting on a short week, they will begin a stretch of five road games in seven weeks in November and December. Their only home games in the second half of the season will include Minnesota, Cleveland, Green Bay, the LA Rams, and Pittsburgh. There will be no gimmes in the back half of the season, which will likely lead to a tough road to regaining the division crown. A strong run game and defense should allow them to weather the storm and stay within the top seven in the AFC come playoff time.
2020 Record: Season Result: 11-5 / Lost Div. Round @ KC 22-17
2021 Prediction: 12-5 (4-2) / #2 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 1 @ KC, Week 8 vs PIT, Week 10 @ NE, Week 14 vs BAL, Week 16 @ GB (Christmas)
The Browns enter 2021 with expectations seemingly for the first time since the Bernie Kosar days in the late 1980s. 2020 Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski thrived in his first season in Cleveland, leading the team to their first playoff victory since 1994 after blowing out the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round before a tough loss in Kansas City.
The Browns return an intact offensive line that finished 2020 number one in the according to PFF, to pair with the NFL’s top running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who combined for 2,362 all-purpose yards and 23 touchdowns last season. Odell Beckham Jr. will also return following a torn ACL to pair with a very underrated Jarvis Landry. Even Austin Hooper, their 2020 free agent signing, is a formidable red zone threat from the tight end position. If Baker Mayfield continue to progress entering year four, he should be in store for a career year.
Following additions of quality veterans Jadeveon Clowney and John Johnson III, Cleveland will strengthen both the defensive line and secondary. Myles Garrett should be one of the dark horses for Defensive Player of the Year following three straight seasons finishing with double digit sacks and a PFF grade of at least 86.0. Denzel Ward has become one of the better corners in the NFL, but will need to finally have a healthy season to jump into elite status.
The season starts where it ended last season with a high profile matchup against the Chiefs. In a season that includes just six games against 2020 playoff teams, four of which are against fellow division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore, record will not be the pressing factor in determining the success of this team’s season, but rather how consistently competitive Cleveland can remain against those tough opponents.
Barring an extreme case of injuries, the Browns should be considered the front runners for their first division title since joining the AFC North in 2002, as well as being one of Kansas City’s biggest threats to three-peating as conference champions.
2020 Record/Season Result: 4-11-1 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 6-11 (2-4) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 4 vs JAX (TNF), Week 7 @ BAL, Week 9 vs CLE, Week 12 vs PIT, Week 15 @ DEN
The Bengals will look to continue and make strides in their rebuild following a four win campaign that saw rookie quarterback Joe Burrow have a ton of individual success before a knee injury ended his year prematurely. He has made a full return and will be available for their season opener.
A big improvement will be needed from the offensive line in order for Burrow to stay upright after he was sacked 32 times, which was second-worst during the first 11 weeks. Cincinnati took a gamble in the draft, passing on quality first round prospects to reunite the quarterback with his fellow National Champion teammate Ja’Marr Chase.
The rookie had a rough first training camp and preseason with drops and while a few games will not define his career, it has not inspired optimism that the Bengals will continue to improve in 2021. Fortunately, wide receivers Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and running back Joe Mixon give Cincinnati enough firepower to remain competitive in most games this year.
The defensive line exchanged a pair of breakout edge rushers from 2020 after allowing Carl Lawson, who led the NFL in quarterback knockdowns (26), for Trey Hendrickson, who finished tied for the second-most sacks (13.5). It remains to be seen whether Hendrickson can come remotely close to repeating that production, but what can be said is the return of defensive tackle D.J. Reader will be a big boost to a defense that allowed 148.0 rushing yards per game (29th) last season.
Their secondary is probably their strongest overall unit, containing quality veterans Chidobe Awuzie and Trae Waynes on the outside while Mike Hilton, a former Steeler, mans the slot. The unit is anchored by safety Jessie Bates, a 2020 second-team All-Pro and one of only two defensive backs in the NFL that graded out above a 90 last season (90.1).
It is difficult to look at Cincinnati’s 2021 outlook and have optimism of playoff contention, however that is the route Head Coach Zac Taylor and company will need to have that kind of success in order to be back for the 2022 season. Otherwise, the Cincinnati job could be one of the hottest vacancies on the market as soon as the offseason begins.
2020 Record/Season Result: 11-5 / AFC South Champs / Lost Wild Card vs BAL 20-13
2021 Prediction: 10-7 (3-3) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 3 vs IND, Week 6 vs BUF (MNF), Week 8 @ IND, Week 15 @ PIT, Week 16 vs SF (TNF)
Tennessee enters 2021 with a strong argument to be one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL, led by back-to-back rushing champion Derrick Henry, who is most recently coming off of the NFL’s eighth 2,000 yard season (2,027 – 5th most in NFL history). Ryan Tannehill should continue his career resurgence as a Titan with his elite running game, as well as his elite wide receiver duo of five-time All-Pro Julio Jones and young star A.J. Brown, who is the only WR in the NFL to obtain a passer rating when targeted above 125.0 in each of the last two seasons. Left Tackle Taylor Lewan will return after missing all but five games last season due to a torn ACL.
Each level as a unit on the defensive side rank in the bottom half of the NFL, and while the signing of Bud Dupree will produce more in the sack department than Jadeveon Clowney did in 2020, it is still a weak pass rush that might not improve much from their 30th-ranked pass rush (19 sacks).
Jeffery Simmons should continue to develop into an elite defensive lineman, however the rest of the unit leaves much to be desired. In the secondary, Tennessee will be asking for big leaps from a few young players after the departure of four key defensive backs, including their top three cornerbacks. Janoris Jenkins should help soften the blow, but this is a defense that will be tough to rely on keeping the team out of shootouts on a weekly basis, even with the pedigree that Head Coach Mike Vrabel brings.
The Titans are certain to provide us with several highlights and great football games this year, but it will be tough to keep up in games with other talented AFC teams that will have much more balance on both sides of the ball.
2020 Record/Season Result: 11-5 / Lost Wild Card @ BUF 27-24
2021 Prediction: 11-6 (6-0) / #4 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 3 @ TEN, Week 5 @ BAL (MNF), Week 8 TEN, Week 12 vs TB, Week 15 vs NE
Even with being one of the weirder fits bringing in gunslinger Philip Rivers last year, Indianapolis still managed to have a successful year. Bringing in Carson Wentz might be his best opportunity to return to his 2017 MVP-caliber form with a familiar coach in Frank Reich, an elite offensive line, and a stellar run game.
The bad luck bug gave the Colts quite the scare as training camp started, beginning with Carson Wentz and All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson suffering foot fractures that, while on the surface not seeming serious, cost both invaluable practice time. Tackle Eric Fisher, former Chief and number one pick, has yet to receive clearance to return and potentially replace the recently retired Anthony Castonzo on the blindside and long-time wide receiver T.Y. Hilton will miss time to start the year due to a neck injury.
That is not the ideal situation for a team that will begin the year facing five consecutive playoff-caliber opponents, including three straight road games. Second year pros Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman should be capable of shouldering the load with their offensive production, but they will need their defense to continue stifling opponents to weather the storm during the first half of the year.
Still with all the uncertainty, this still is the making of a team that could become dangerous and hot at the right time to become a team no one would want to face come January. Ending the year with a late Week 14 bye, followed by four very winnable games against 2020 non-playoff teams, Tennessee will need to keep their foot on the gas if they do not want to be caught within the division. Wentz’s return to the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks is essential for this team to build on 2020, however they must overcome a bunch of early season adversity to do so.
2020 Record/Season Result: 4-12 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 1-16 (0-6) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 1 vs JAX, Week 3 vs CAR, Week 12 vs NYJ, Week 15 @ JAX, Week 18 vs TEN
The unprecedented collapse of Houston from a playoff contender up 24-0 on the road in the playoffs against eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City to 19 months later entering the 2021 season with the NFL’s worst projected record is baffling to say the least.
From overspending on very good-but-not-great tackle Laremy Tunsil, to one of the worst modern era trades of superstar wideout DeAndre Hopkins, to burning bridges and forcing a top five quarterback talent in Deshaun Waston to request a trade (pre-legal issues) is an unheard of situation for an organization that that was filled with potential to rival the Chiefs as the team to usurp the two decade run the Patriots had atop the AFC.
With that being said, there is not much to be optimistic about. A team filled with zero star power does not have much opportunity to do anything other than vie for the top pick in the 2022 draft. Uncertainty regarding Deshaun Watson’s situation makes it difficult to predict what his future in the NFL holds, however one thing that is all but certain is his tenure as a member of the Texans being over.
The situation makes it difficult for guys like Head Coach David Culley and quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who deserve much better than being tied to this tire fire. General Manager Nick Caserio has a multiyear project in front of him that will require massive patience, a ton of maneuvering, and a lot of luck to turn this back into a respectable organization. Houston fans will be in for massive growing pains this year, as this team has the making of one that may flirt with becoming the NFL’s third winless team since 1983.
2020 Record/Season Result: 1-15 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 5-12 (3-3) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 4 @ CIN (TNF), Week 5 vs TEN, Week 6 vs MIA (London), Week 10 @ IND, Week 14 @ TEN
Had the New York Jets not won consecutive games in Weeks 15 and 16, the Jaguars would have missed out on the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes and, in turn, entered 2021 with possibly the NFL’s worst roster (including the uber dysfunctional Texans).
Offense and Defense
Even with their golden goose at quarterback, Jacksonville does not install much confidence that this team will have a massive turnaround, at least this year. The offensive line leaves much to be desired, and outside of Josh Allen (no, the edge rusher) and C.J. Henderson, who have enjoyed sub-par starts to their respective careers, Jacksonville possesses a defense that most teams will likely take advantage of in 2021.
Even with the overall talent deficiency, we have seen several teams in recent years exceed expectations due to scrappy play and overachievement from several developing young talents (see Miami tanking for Tua). Trevor Lawrence and Head Coach Urban Meyer are far from their dominant days in the college ranks and will face growing pains and an uphill battle for the first time in their careers.
That being said, there are several winnable games and opportunities to take admirable steps in their rookie NFL seasons, starting with a depleted Houston Texans team opening week. The playoffs should not be an expectation, but rather a farfetched luxury. Staying remotely competitive on a weekly basis will go a long way in developing a culture that the Jaguars can build on for years to come.
A positive finish to the year, as well as a strong 2022 offseason could very well place Jacksonville as a dark horse playoff threat next season. As for now, I don’t expect to see Jacksonville exceeding their projected six game win total as we approach kickoff.
2020 Record/Season Result: 13-3 / AFC East Champs / Lost AFC Championship @ KC 38-24
2021 Prediction: 12-5 (5-1) / #3 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 5 @ KC (SNF), Week 6 @ TEN (MNF), Week 12 vs IND, Week 14 @ TB, Week 16 @ NE
The Bills followed a strong 2019 season with an even bigger leap in 2020, winning the AFC East for the first time in 25 years and first AFC Championship appearance since their most recent Super Bowl appearance in 1993.
Quarterback Josh Allen continued his excellent progression into an elite quarterback and after earning a second team All-Pro nod, he locked up an extension that will keep him as Buffalo’s signal-caller through 2028. 2020 receptions and receiving yards leader Stefon Diggs had his way with defensive backs in his first season with the Bills and should continue to thrive as the number one option in that offense.
Their running back situation leaves much to be desired, as the pair of Zack Moss and Devin Singletary combined for just six touchdowns with neither averaging more than 43.0 yards on the ground last season. The lack of production stood out even more in the postseason after the duo rushed for just 84 yards and no scores over three games. The rushing attack will need to see a major improvement in order to not become too reliant on Allen’s legs as he enters the prime of his young career.
Defensively the Bills do not possess much star power, per say, however they are deep on all three levels which should lead to being one of the top 10 units in football. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are one of the best safety duos after each finish among the top 25 safeties in 2020 according to PFF, while Tre’Davious White remains one of the top 10 cornerbacks in football.
Their pass rush is young, but deep after the additions of rookies Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham with their first two picks in the 2021 draft. The pressure will be on third year pro Ed Oliver to make huge improvements and live up to his top 10 billing after grading out as the worst starting interior defender in the NFL against the run (30.0).
Despite a schedule littered with potential playoff previews against the likes of Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, and Indianapolis, the Bills should remain the team to beat in the AFC East. Even with Miami and an improved New England nipping on their heels, Buffalo remains the only team with a reliable quarterback presence to lean on as the year unfolds.
2020 Record/Season Result: 10-6 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 8-9 (2-4) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 1 @ NE, Week 4 vs IND, Week 8 @ BUF, Week 10 vs BAL (TNF), Week 17 @ TEN
Huge kudos to Head Coach Brian Flores for establishing a quick culture change a year following several roster moves that gutted the roster that essentially gave the team an opportunity to ‘Tank For Tua’. 10 wins was a pleasant surprise for the Dolphins, eight of which were by at least double digits, tied for second-most in the NFL.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will now take over the reins as the full-time starter following a split season with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins added a few electrifying pass catchers in the offseason with rookie Jaylen Waddle and great-but-fragile deep threat Will Fuller V to pair with DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki to make up one of the most intriguing skill groups in the NFL. The offensive line is extremely young and raw, with only Robert Hunt, who will be moving to guard, being the only starter to ever finish a season with a PFF grade above 62 in his career.
Benardrick McKinney was brought in via trade to man the middle of a relatively weak front seven, but being one of the final roster cuts signals the scrappy young core could struggle with a lack of veteran leadership as the year goes on.
Even with Byron Jones and 2020 interceptions leader Xavien Howard providing an elite cornerback tandem on the backend, Miami was all over the board defending the pass last season, tying for the most interceptions (18) and allowing the second-fewest passing touchdowns (21 – T-2nd), but also gave up several big plays, resulting in the second-most yards per attempt for opposing quarterbacks (8.0).
It is difficult to assess whether Miami can build on a strong 2020 and sneak into the playoffs, but much of their postseason potential will be predicated on Tua’s development. Even in just year two, we have seen the pressure among recent young quarterbacks to succeed early. If the former Heisman winner struggles to win games in 2021, we may see a move of epic proportions depending on how the Deshaun Watson legal situation plays out.
New England Patriots
2020 Record/Season Result: 7-9 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 10-7 (4-2) / #6 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 1 vs MIA, Week 4 vs TB, Week 10 vs CLE, Week 15 @ IND, Week 16 vs BUF
2020 was a season of transition for the Patriots in their first season of Tom Brady-less football in over 20 years. Despite having the most COVID opt-outs and a painfully strange offensive fit with Cam Newton at quarterback, New England still managed to be a competitive 7-9. Bill Belichick and company started out the offseason extremely aggressive, spending a whopping $268 million on several key free agents to strengthen both sides of the ball. In addition, the Patriots just made one of the most shocking decisions after the preseason to cut the veteran quarterback Newton in favor of first round rookie Mac Jones.
Regardless of opting for a rookie under center, New England should be much improved and back vying for postseason contention. This could lead to a breakout year for running back Damien Harris, who was one of only two running backs in the NFL to grade out as a top 5 runner and pass blocker in 2020.
He will run behind a top three offensive line that includes three players who finished with a PFF grade of 82 or higher last season. The duo of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith should also provide a facelift to the tight end position that combined for a league-low 19 receptions in 2020.
Even with 2019 defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore beginning the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list, their secondary is littered with young pieces that will make up for his lost production, including J.C. Jackson, who broke out with nine interceptions in 2020. Dont’a Hightower returning from a COVID opt-out will provide the defense with a strong veteran presence from the linebacker spot, while free agent signings Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy will provide a massive boost to a pass rush that finished with just 24 sacks (27th) in 2020.
The schedule is very manageable as well, with just two road games against 2020 playoff teams, both of which straddle their Week 14 bye. New England should be one of the safest bets for improvement this season, and could become one of the toughest teams to gauge once playoff season rolls around.
New York Jets
2020 Record/Season Result: 2-14 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 3-14 (1-5) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 1 @ CAR, Week 8 vs CIN, Week 11 vs MIA, Week 13 vs PHI, Week 16 vs JAX
Ironically, the only good thing to come out of last year for an organization that has lost more games than any NFL team since 2016 (57), was it’s two victories against playoff teams after an 0-13 start, ultimately costing the organization an opportunity at the number one pick and a generational talent in Trevor Lawrence.
In what is considered one of the best quarterback classes of this century, the Jets took a massive gamble, opting for Zach Wilson over guys like Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones, all of which had substantial collegiate success and have received major hype throughout training camp and preseason thus far. While the BYU product has also shown occasional flashes in his own right, he is easily in for the most difficult of paths to success compared to his classmates.
Even with Head Coach Robert Salah coming over from San Francisco, fans will have to be patient with this multi-year rebuild project. The offense is much improved compared to the mess Sam Darnold was forced to put up with in recent years thanks to additions of Corey Davis and Tevin Coleman via free agency and Elijah Moore and Alijah Vera-Tucker in the draft, which should result in an improvement in their league-worst 15.2 points per game in 2020.
The front seven defensively is the strength of this team, but it has dealt with some major blows after losing free agent pass rusher Carl Lawson (Achilles) for the season, while Jarrad Davis will also miss several weeks to start the year (Ankle).
Four-time Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosely will return after opting out due to COVID last year, but he has only played in two games since signing his big contract in the 2019 offseason. It is a huge unknown if he will be able to return to form. Defensive lineman Quinnen Williams and safety Marcus Maye are Pro Bowl-caliber players who both finished among the top 12 in their respective positions last year as well.
The talent accumulated in recent years is promising, but there is a long way to go for New York to compete on a weekly basis. Winning the majority of games against similar caliber opponents, while upsetting a few playoff teams along the way will go a long way in determining the Jets’ outlook when it comes to 2022. Still, I would expect to be holding a top 10 pick come next April.
Kansas City Chiefs
2020 Record/Season Result: 14-2 / AFC West Champs / Lost Super Bowl LV vs TB 31-9
2021 Prediction: 14-3 (4-2) / #1 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 2 @ BAL (SNF). Week 5 vs BUF, Week 7 @ TEN, Week 9 vs GB, Week 15 @ LAC (TNF)
Kansas City remains the team to beat in the AFC following back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, even despite being throttled by the Buccaneers last time we saw them.
Head Coach Andy Reid remains the NFL’s top offensive innovator, and Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill each have respective claims to be the top dog among their positions.
One thing that is certain is the Chiefs will be nearly unstoppable offensively and will be able to put up points at will. Second year running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and wide receiver Mecole Hardman should step into bigger roles as complementary pieces as well.
The Chiefs did a fantastic job addressing the offensive line, bringing in several impact players and depth in the draft and free agency. Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, and Lucas Niang all are projected starters that will be playing in their first career game come Week 1, but have all received high praise that they will step right in and be successful early on.
The Chiefs also brought in Joe Thuney, who has been a criminally underrated guard for the Patriots for the last few years, and traded for Orlando Brown Jr., who will switch to cover the blindside after becoming a Pro Bowler in each of the last two years.
There are several holes throughout the defense, but they are anchored by All-Pros Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu, providing some stability in the pass rush and coverage departments. Edge Frank Clark will need to have a great turnaround season after struggling in each of his first two season with the Chiefs. L’Jarius Sneed was a welcome surprise in his rookie season as a 4th round pick, but the rest of the secondary is made up of several former early round picks, who are looking to finally live up to their respective pre-draft billings.
A killer start to the year includes five of their first seven opponents, however Kansas City knows how to get off to hot starts under Andy Reid, where they have only lost one game in September since 2016, en route to five straight AFC West titles. Barring injury, even in a competitive AFC, the road to SoFi Stadium in February should run through Kansas City.
Las Vegas Raiders
2020 Record/Season Result: 8-8 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 5-12 (1-5) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 3 vs MIA, Week 4 @ LAC (MNF), Week 11 vs CIN, Week 16 vs DEN, Week 17 @ IND
The Raiders have improved record-wise in each of the last two seasons under Gruden’s second stint with the team, however it could be a tall task ahead of them to finish with a winning record and potential playoff spot following another offseason of questionable moves.
They parted ways with three of their top four lineman in Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson, and Trent Brown, who combined to allow just one sack last season. Though left tackle Kolton Miller finally made strides as a pass blocker (81.0 – 15th among tackles), the rest of the line is made up of uninspiring starters and 2021 first round pick Alex Leatherwood, who was considered by many to be the biggest reach of the draft.
In terms of their skill group, outside of Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller, the Raiders will enter the year with plenty of unproven talent at the receiver position, including Henry Ruggs III, who struggled as a rookie after being drafted ahead of guys like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Justin Jefferson.
Even with two solid running backs in Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake, neither averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry last season, while rating as below average as pass catchers and blockers. It is all an unfair situation to overcome yet again for quarterback Derek Carr, who is one of six players to finish with a passer rating over 100 in each of the last two seasons.
Defensively, Las Vegas did bring in several quality veteran players with hopes to improve a unit that surrendered 29.9 points per game last year. Gerald McCoy, K.J. Wright, Casey Hayward, and Yannick Ngakoue likely won’t be impact players like they once were, but they will at least provide leadership and consistency throughout each level as they adjust to new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s new system. This will also be make or break years for defensive end Clelin Ferrell and safety Johnathan Abram, neither of which have lived up to their 2019 first round billing.
Las Vegas’ 2021 schedule also is one of the toughest in the NFL, with next to no gimme wins throughout the schedule, including a gauntlet with Washington, Kansas City, Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, and the LA Chargers to finish the year. Considering all three divisional foes got substantially better this offseason, while the Raiders stayed rather stagnant with their overall roster, I would expect a return to the bottom of a very competitive division, with Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock firmly on the hot seat going into next offseason, if they are even able to make it through the year at all.
Los Angeles Chargers
2020 Record/Season Result: 7-9 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 10-7 (3-3) / #7 Seed
Key Matchups: Week 4 vs LV (MNF), Week 8 vs NE, Week 11 vs PIT (SNF), Week 15 vs KC (TNF), Week 17 vs DEN
The Chargers finished 2020 strong with four straight wins to end the year, which has led to one of the biggest hype trains for a dark horse playoff team entering 2021.
Quarterback Justin Herbert took the starting job in Week 2 and never looked back, finishing with 289.1 passing yards per game (4th) and an NFL rookie-record 31 passing touchdowns. Four-time Pro Bowler Keenan Allen and former first round pick Mike Williams, who is in a contract year, should continue providing reliable weapons on the outside, while veteran tight end Jared Cook and running back Austin Ekeler will provide reliable hands underneath as well.
A huge area the Chargers needed to address in the offseason was their 32nd-ranked offensive line from a year ago, and they did just that, bringing in Corey Linsley, the top rated center in the NFL in 2020 (86.4) and drafting what some thought was the best offensive lineman in the NFL draft in Rashawn Slater this past April. Those moves will not vault the unit into the top 10 immediately, but it will be a huge improvement to protect the young Justin Herbert and avoid a potential Cincinnati-like situation.
The best player on their defense is considered to be Joey Bosa, but their overall success will be predicated on the health of safety Derwin James, who has not played since October of 2019 due to multiple season-ending injuries. He is a playmaker in all facets and, when last healthy, was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie. Veteran Chris Harris Jr. will also return after missing seven games last season to provide stability on the back end. 2020 draft picks Kenneth Murray and Nassir Adderly should also take big steps into bigger roles entering their sophomore seasons.
The opportunity is there for the Chargers to have another strong finish to the season, as the only post-Thanksgiving matchup against a 2020 playoff team is a home matchup against Kansas City on a short week. Unless we see a regression from Justin Herbert, Los Angeles should be in contention for a postseason appearance as a Wild Card team in Brandon Staley’s first year as Head Coach.
2020 Record/Season Result: 5-11 / Missed Playoffs
2021 Prediction: 9-8 (4-2) / Miss Playoffs
Key Matchups: Week 4 vs BAL, Week 5 @ PIT, Week 7 @ CLE (TNF), Week 12 vs LAC, Week 17 @ LAC
The Broncos will attempt to get back into relevance after five consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs since their Super Bowl 50 victory.
The quarterback carousel continues to go around, as Denver will begin their fifth straight year with a different starting quarterback after Teddy Bridgewater, who was acquired in the offseason, beat out last year’s starter Drew Lock. Whether or not that is an upgrade remains to be seen, but one thing that should improve is protecting the football after Denver finished with a league-worst -16 turnover-differential last season.
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton will return (ACL) after missing all of 2020 to join Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and tight end Noah Fant as one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. Veteran Melvin Gordon III and rookie Javonte Williams should also provide a formidable rushing attack to massively improve their 20.2 points per game (28th) last season.
Defensively, this could be their best unit since their Super Bowl run as well, especially with the return of seven-time All-Pro Von Miller (ankle). Pairing him with Bradley Chubb will provide the Broncos with multiple guys capable of securing double digit sacks.
The secondary ranks atop the NFL after an offseason of quality additions. Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, and Bryce Callahan combine for over 200 starts between the trio, while Patrick Surtain II, the top ranked corner of the 2021 draft class, has already gotten off to a hot start with the team. Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons could also be arguably the NFL’s top safety duo after each finished the last two seasons as a top 10 safety, according to PFF.
Denver’s schedule is very favorable as well, opening the year with games against the rebuilding Giants, Jaguars, and Jets. Aside from a pair of games against the Chiefs, the Broncos do not face another playoff team from 2020 after Week 8. The roster and schedule is in their favor to become a playoff-caliber team once again, so long as the quarterback situation can be relied upon much more consistently than in recent years.
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