Another NFL season is just days away, meaning it’s time for Pickard’s 2021 NFL predictions, where the takes are bold and guaranteed to look foolish within days.
Without further ado, let’s dive in. We’ll start with the AFC standings, move on to the NFC, forecast the playoffs, and fire off some awards predictions. Keep those receipts, friends, because things are about to get real.
16. Houston Texans (2-15)
The Texans are on track to have a pathetic season, but it won’t be so miserable that they finish without a win. Look for Houston to pick up a pair of wins while still locking up the No. 1 selection in the draft.
15. New York Jets (5-12)
Winning five games doesn’t usually finish second-to-last in a conference, but that will be the case with the Jets in 2021. New York, under the leadership of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, will wind a handful of games but still finish last in the AFC East.
14. Cincinnati Bengals (6-11)
The Bengals are headed for another tough season even with Joe Burrow healthy and Ja’Marr Chase in tow. Cincinnati’s coaching staff will struggle tremendously, and this record prediction takes into account Zac Taylor being fired midseason.
13. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-11)
The Jaguars will scrape together a half-dozen wins during the first season of the Trevor Lawrence-Urban Meyer duo. However, the team won’t eclipse .500 and look like true contenders until the new core has at least one season under its belt.
12. Denver Broncos (7-10)
The Broncos’ offense and defense are both looking quite impressive, but questions remain about the team’s quarterback and coaching staff, both of which are critical factors towards success. They’ll finish below .500 once again in 2021.
11. Las Vegas Raiders (8-9)
Oh, look. Another AFC West team with severe coaching woes. The Raiders have a strong offense in place, but the effectiveness of the coaching staff has been nearly nonexistent in recent years. Las Vegas is heading towards another losing season.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-9)
The Steelers are no longer the team to beat in the AFC North. In fact, they will finish third in their division with a sub-.500 record this season. Pittsburgh will show flashes of brilliance, but situations involving utter incompetence will also ensue sporadically throughout the season. Ultimately, this team cannot be trusted down the stretch.
9. Miami Dolphins (9-8)
The Dolphins have a solid team in place under coaching mastermind Brian Flores, but the defense regressed during the offseason and Tua Tagovailoa didn’t exactly impress last season. That could change in 2021, but for now, Miami is on the outside looking in.
8. Indianapolis Colts (9-8)
The Colts are trending upwards but will finish just outside of the playoff picture this season. Carson Wentz will look solid at times, but it won’t be enough to push Indianapolis into the playoffs during his first season with the team.
7. New England Patriots (10-7)
The Patriots should sneak into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, becoming the only AFC team to make the playoffs with a rookie quarterback under center. Mac Jones looked phenomenal during the preseason, several key members of the defense are returning, and Bill Belichick was unafraid to empty Robert Kraft’s wallet during free agency.
6. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)
The Justin Herbert effect is working wonders in Los Angeles, where the Chargers will make the playoffs under first-year head coach Brandon Staley. In addition to an electric offense, the team’s defense appears to be trending upwards and could put together a strong showing this year.
5. Baltimore Ravens (11-6)
Losing J.K. Dobbins to injury and Matthew Judon in free agency both hurt, but the Ravens still addressed their biggest need this offseason by drafting Rashod Bateman and signing Sammy Watkins. These two players should allow Lamar Jackson to improve as a passer. In turn, this will open up the offense in general.
4. Tennessee Titans (11-6)
On paper, the Titans might be the scariest team in football. You simply can’t gameplan for an offense consisting of Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, and Ryan Tannehill. A shaky and porous defense will cost Tennessee six losses in 2021.
3. Cleveland Browns (12-5)
The Browns are a fun team to watch, especially considering how much the team has transformed from a state of misery during the Hue Jackson era. Questions remain about just how far Baker Mayfield can take this team, but Cleveland should at least win its division and secure a spot in the playoffs.
2. Buffalo Bills (12-5)
Josh Allen was phenomenal in 2020 and should have similar results this season. He and Stefon Diggs had huge emergences at the same time, leading to a magical run for the Bills. Don’t be surprised if they challenge the Chiefs for the No. 1 spot this year.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
Speak of the devil. The reigning AFC champions are ready to defend their title and also fight for another Super Bowl ring. We’re in for a treat once again, courtesy of Patrick Mahomes and this one-of-a-kind offense.
16. Detroit Lions (4-13)
The Lions won’t finish as bad as some people are predicting, but they’ll still end up in the basement of the NFC when all is said and done. Jared Goff will struggle with such a depleted receiving corps.
15. Atlanta Falcons (4-13)
The Falcons will struggle under first-year head coach Arthur Smith. Losing Julio Jones will hurt, especially considering Kyle Pitts is going to fail to meet expectations in his first pro season. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan is going to be sacked a lot once again this season.
14. Carolina Panthers (5-12)
On paper, it’s hard to discount this Panthers team. They have a smart head coach in Matt Rhule, a dominant offensive three-headed monster in Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, and Robby Anderson, and a young defense that is clearly trending upward. However, Sam Darnold will hold this team back. Perhaps 2021 is the year that Carolina realizes it needs to draft a quarterback rather than pilfer everyone else’s rejects.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (6-11)
It’s no secret that I have never stepped foot on the Eagles hype train. Outside of a dominant tight end corps, there is nothing truly impressive about this football team. Disfunction will run rampant in Philadelphia again this season.
12. New York Giants (6-11)
This is a solid team with an impressive defense, but questions continue to surround the health statuses of Kenny Golladay and Saquon Barkley. Meanwhile, Daniel Jones has struggled throughout his young career and could be on a short leash if his woes continue in 2021.
11. Chicago Bears (7-10)
Justin Fields will take over early in the season and put up solid numbers, but he won’t singlehandedly bring Chicago to the playoffs during his rookie campaign. Matt Nagy’s job security will be put into question various times throughout the year.
10. New Orleans Saints (9-8)
Turning the page to a new chapter isn’t easy. The Saints lost Drew Brees to retirement and Michael Thomas to an injury. While the latter could return this season, this team’s status remains up in the air. They don’t appear to be legitimate contenders, though picking Jameis Winston over Taysom Hill was a good decision.
9. Arizona Cardinals (9-8)
Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins are incredible at what they do, as are defensive wizards Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt. However, a weak backfield and secondary will keep Arizona out of the playoffs this season. The fact that the Cardinals play in the hardest division in football doesn’t help their case, either.
8. Seattle Seahawks (9-8)
The Seahawks are frequent playoff contenders but have struggled to take that next step. In 2021, they’ll actually take a step backward and miss the playoffs altogether. This team has proven it cannot be relied on during the back half of a season.
7. San Francisco 49ers (9-8)
Nobody really knows what to make of this quarterback competition, but one thing is clear: the 49ers are poised for a big bounce-back year. Injuries decimated the playoff-hopeful 49ers last year, but San Francisco remains optimistic now that the majority of the roster is healthy once again. Pairing a top-eight defense with an offense featuring George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and Trey Lance? Yes, please.
6. Dallas Cowboys (9-8)
The Cowboys will finish above .500 as Dak Prescott returns from injury. We’ll finally get a good look at this offense, which contains various big playmakers at all positions. Dallas should sneak into the playoffs this year.
5. Minnesota Vikings (9-8)
The Vikings’ offense looked phenomenal last season, though the defense still presented question marks. The same is true in 2021, but you just can’t say that a team featuring Justin Jefferson, Adm Thielen, and Dalvin Cook won’t make the playoffs.
4. Washington Football Team (10-7)
Washington was very impressive last season despite a wild carousel at quarterback. Now, the Football Team has more stability under center and should make the playoffs once again this year. We also get to see Chase Young and Antonio Gibson during their second pro seasons, which will be a real treat.
3. Green Bay Packers (12-5)
Now that the Aaron Rodgers drama has cleared up, the Packers look like a formidable team bound for the playoffs once again. It remains to be seen just how far this team can go, though.
2. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
The Rams are being criminally underrated by essentially everyone. With a top-five defense, an explosive offense, and an upgrade at quarterback, there appears to be very little separating Los Angeles from the Super Bowl.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
No surprise here. Led by Tom Brady, the reigning champions will finish with the best record in the NFC and look to defend their title in 2021.
Wild Card Round
Bills (2) over Patriots (7)
Chargers (6) over Browns (3)
Titans (4) over Ravens (5)
Rams (2) over 49ers (7)
Packers (3) over Cowboys (6)
Vikings (5) over Football Team (4)
This round will feature a pair of upsets but very few shockers. With that said, one stunning outcome does draw some attention: Chargers over Browns. Los Angeles was very impressive in 2020 and should be even more organized and dominant this year with Justin Herbert in his second pro season and a new coaching staff in tow. Meanwhile, the Bills will emerge victorious following a nail-biting contest against New England. This certainly won’t be the last divisional thriller between Josh Allen and Mac Jones.
Chiefs (1) over Chargers (6)
Titans (4) over Bills (2)
Buccaneers (1) over Vikings (5)
Rams (2) over Packers (3)
Only one upset in this round, and it comes during a clash between two of the most exciting offenses in the league. Meanwhile, the Chiefs knock off a division-mate, the Bucs’ quest continues, and the Rams find themselves spoiling Aaron Rodgers‘ dreams.
Chiefs (1) over Titans (4)
Rams (2) over Buccaneers (1)
Chiefs-Titans almost has the makings of that wild Chiefs-Texans playoff game in January of 2020. While Tennessee could jump out to an early lead, its defense can’t hold off Mahomes and co. for four quarters. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford and the Rams will knock off Tom Brady while punching a ticket to the Super Bowl at their home stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
Super Bowl LVI
Rams (2) over Chiefs (1)
For the second year in a row, the Chiefs will lose a Super Bowl against a team playing in its home stadium while being quarterbacked by a newcomer. This time, though, it will be Matthew Stafford and the Rams securing a Super Bowl ring at the beautiful So-Fi Stadium. Lions fans are definitely going to be jealous.
Most Valuable Player: Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill is going to put the NFL on notice this season and it might just be enough to win the MVP award. While he won’t be the runaway favorite for this honor, the Titans signal-caller will secure the title by throwing for over 4,500 yards and 45 touchdowns. Along the way, he will also lead the Titans to an 11-6 record while securing a berth in the AFC Championship.
Offensive Player of the Year: Stefon Diggs
Was Diggs’ phenomenal breakout campaign last season not enough for you? Don’t worry because he’s going to excel once again in 2021, leading the NFL in receiving yards. The former Vikings receiver will also have a knack for finding the end zone while building on the already strong apport he formed with Josh Aallen.
Defensive Player of the Year: Myles Garrett
Look out, NFL. Myles Garrett is ready to rip through opposing offensive lines en route to winning DPOY in 2021. The fact that he gets four games against the Bengals’ and Steelers’ porous lines will certainly help his case, too. The two-time Pro Bowler should have no trouble reaching 15 sacks this season.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Mac Jones
It seems like Jones or Lance has to be the answer here considering they’re the only two rookie quarterbacks who will lead their respective teams to the playoffs this season. The Alabama product gets the edge over the North Dakota State phenom due to the fact that he’s the guaranteed starter in Week 1 and also looked very, very good during the preseason.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons
The Cowboys haven’t been known for their defense in the past. While that won’t exactly change this season, Parsons will significantly bolster Dallas’ unit. There is little debate that he was the best defensive prospect in the draft; that will be put on display in 2021.
Comeback Player of the Year: Dak Prescott
Is this taking the easy way out? Sure. However, at the same time, it would be foolish to pick anyone other than Prescott, who is reportedly 100 percent after missing most of 2020 with a gruesome leg injury. He’s going to lead his team to the playoffs and take home some hardware during the awards ceremony next February.
Coach of the Year: Sean McVay
Winning the Super Bowl definitely doesn’t always dictate who wins Coach of the Year, but that will be the case in 2021. McVay is one of football’s greatest masterminds and he will be rewarded for his hard work with plenty of hardware (both at the Super Bowl and the awards ceremony).
Follow Andersen Pickard on Twitter @AndersenPickard
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