2021 NFL season preview

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Smart teams win. Dumb teams lose.

That may sound reductive but success and failure in the NFL is that simple. To wit: Since 2000, the New England Patriots and Washington Football Team have combined for 22 postseason appearances. The Pats account for 17.

New England is run by one of the more intelligent owners in the league, Robert Kraft, and head coach Bill Belichick, who may be the best mind in the history of the sport. Washington, on the other hand, is run by human dumpster fire Daniel Snyder and has employed eight full-time head coaches (along with two interim coaches) in the last 20 years.

Smart teams like New England (and Kansas City, Baltimore and San Francisco) win. Their lows are never that low and are never sustained. Dumb teams like Washington (and the Jets, Jaguars and Lions) never maintain positive momentum for more than a season or two.

A 17-game season will only further the divide between the cream and the crap.

Division Winners
AFC North — Cleveland
What a bizarre world we live in. Despite a pair of perennial contenders in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, it is the Cleveland Browns who lay claim to the most complete roster in the AFC North. With the Steelers slumping and the Ravens fighting a major injury breakout, the division is ripe for Cleveland’s taking. And take it they will.

AFC South — Tennessee
Tackling Tennessee’s offensive playmakers will not be a fun assignment. Newly acquired receiver Julio Jones is the lightest of three, tipping the scales at 220 pounds, with A.J. Brown coming in at 226 and Derrick Henry at 247. The Titans will grind out their second consecutive AFC South crown through blunt force.

AFC East — Buffalo
Josh Allen got paid this summer, signing a six-year, $258 million extension with $150 million guaranteed. Now that he has the contract of a franchise quarterback, Allen needs to prove last year was the start of a trend and not an outlier in his football life. That starts with Buffalo’s second division title in as many seasons and another deep run in the playoffs.

AFC West — Kansas City
Anyone who watched Super Bowl LV knows why the Chiefs never stood a chance. Kansas City’s offensive line fell apart late last season and has been completely retooled in hopes of a third straight Super Bowl appearance. The Chargers are making moves to catch Andy Reid’s juggernaut but won’t get close to Kansas City this season.

NFC North — Green Bay
This is Aaron Rodgers’ final season in Green Bay, regardless of what he or the team says. It may be Davante Adams’ final year in green and gold as well. The Packers will benefit from a pair of highly motivated superstars in 2021 before, quite possibly, watching both walk out the door this winter.

NFC South — Tampa Bay
The team that cruised past Kansas City in Super Bowl LV brings back each of the 22 men who started last year’s title game, something that has not happened in nearly 30 years. Tampa Bay’s main competition no longer has Drew Brees under center, clearing a path for the Bucs’ first division crown since 2007.

NFC East — Dallas
Mike McCarthy earned a mulligan last season after losing franchise quarterback Dak Prescsott to a season-ending injury in early October. There will be no excuses for McCarthy this time around, as he leads one of the leagues most daunting offenses through one of the worst divisions in football.

NFC West — Los Angeles
The NFC West is going to be a gauntlet. It is the toughest division in football, with three bona fide contenders and a fourth team, Arizona, knocking on the door of contention. Most favor a healthy 49ers team to regain the division crown but …

Who I’m Buying
LA Rams
For my money, the Rams are the most complete team in the NFC West. After sending Jared Goof — er, Goff to Detroit in exchange for Matthew Stafford, Sean McVay now has the piece he has been missing since coming to the Rams in 2017: A legitimate difference-maker under center. Stafford has been underappreciated for years and will elevate McVay’s offense in ways Goff could only dream of doing.

And, just in case you had forgotten, Los Angeles’ defense ranked first in the league last season. Former defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is gone, but his replacement is Raheem Morris, a great defensive mind with a history of success coaching defenses in Tampa Bay, Washington and Atlanta. The Rams won’t top the league in defense again this year — it is incredibly difficult for any team to do so in back-to-back campaigns — but this unit will be tough thanks to Morris, Jalen Ramsey and the best defensive player on the planet, Aaron Donald.

New England
No team was hit harder by COVID opt-outs in 2020 than the New England Patriots. Many of those players were defensive starters for the Patriots, and it showed, as New England finished 26th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA after finishing first in the same metric in 2019.

A defense full of returning faces will complement an offense with plenty of new ones. Free agent tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry highlight New England’s spending spree, and throwing them the football will be rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Bill Belichick is notoriously hard on rookies, and yet, Jones beat out veteran starter Cam Newton to earn the starting gig.

The Patriots are inevitable. And now, they’re back.

Who I’m Selling
NY Giants
New York was bad last year. The Giants have not gotten better since they last took the field. Daniel Jones is still terrible. Saquon Barkley is still hurt. Evan Engram is still an injury risk, as is free-agent addition Kenny Golladay. Joe Judge is still a bad coach running a bad team. And even though the NFC East is still a dumpster fire, the Giants are still the worst team in the division.

Pittsburgh
Ben Roethlisberger seemed to play scared last season. He finished 26th (out of 36) in air yards per attempt and 29th (out of 35) in yards per attempt. No quarterback had a lower average time to throw last year than Big Ben. It’s all a fancy way of saying Roethlisberger got rid of the ball awfully fast and rarely pushed the ball downfield.

Big Ben is not the quarterback he used to be. Each of Pittsburgh’s division rivals have a quarterback who has either surpassed Roethlisberger or looks poised to do so before long. Baltimore and Cleveland have defenses just as strong as the Steelers. In a loaded AFC, the Steelers have simply fallen off the pace.

Playoff Seeds
AFC — 1. Kansas City, 2. Buffalo, 3. Tennessee, 4. Cleveland, 5. LA Chargers, 6. New England, 7. Baltimore

NFC — 1. Tampa Bay, 2. Los Angeles, 3. Green Bay, 4. Dallas, 5. San Francisco, 6. Seattle, 7. New Orleans

Wildcard Playoffs
Buffalo over Baltimore
Tennessee over New England
LA Chargers over Cleveland
LA Rams over New Orleans
Green Bay over Seattle
San Francisco over Dallas

Divisional Playoffs
Kansas City over LA Chargers
Buffalo over Tennessee
LA Rams over Green Bay
Tampa Bay over San Francisco

AFC Championship
Kansas City over Buffalo

NFC Championship
LA Rams over Tampa Bay

Super Bowl LVI
Kansas City over LA Rams

Postseason Awards
NFL MVP — Patrick Mahomes (QB, Kansas City)
Offensive Player of the Year — Aaron Rodgers (QB, Green Bay)
Defensive Player of the Year — Myles Garrett (DE, Cleveland)
Offensive Rookie of the Year — Trevor Lawrence (QB, Jacksonville)
Defensive Rookie of the Year — Zaven Collins (LB, Arizona)
Comeback Player of the Year — Dak Prescott (QB, Dallas)
Coach of the Year — Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams)

Hot Seat
Jan. 10, 2022, will be Black Monday, the annual day on which NFL teams announce the firings of head coaches and GMs.

At least six spots open each season, but which ones are most likely to open up this winter? Five of the six coaches who appeared on last year’s list were fired, and the odd man out is the first to appear in this space two years in a row.

Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona) — Kyler Murray has delivered on the promise he brought to the desert and now Kliff Kingsbury must do the same. Kingsbury came into the league touted as an offensive genius, yet has failed to revolutionize anything in Arizona. Most of the progress Arizona’s offense has made in the last two years can be attributed to Murray’s development, not Kingsbury’s coaching. Barring a major leap in 2021, Kingsbury’s time with the Cardinals may be up.

Mike Zimmer (Minnesota) — Mike Zimmer is a good coach. He will still be a good coach after he leaves Minnesota, whenever that may be. Zimmer finds himself on this list because his time Minnesota may have run its course. Eight years is a long time for one coach to stick around, especially absent a consistent run of success. Both Zimmer and the Vikings may be best suited parting ways this winter, especially if Kirk Cousins leaves the Twin Cities and the Vikings start a rebuild in 2022.

Zac Taylor (Cincinnati) — Say what you want about the Bengals’ roster, but Zac Taylor was a bad hire in 2019 and he has proven it over two lost seasons in Cincinnati. Taylor has a potential franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, but got him injured behind a porous offensive line last season. Taylor must make major strides this season.

Vic Fangio (Denver) — Denver needed a quarterback and Drew Lock’s spot on the bench proves the Broncos are still searching for an answer. Fairly or not, Vic Fangio’s future in Denver is tied to that failure. Fangio needs to make a big push with Teddy Bridgewater, the dictionary definition of a replacement-level quarterback, to stay out of the unemployment line come January.

Matt Nagy (Chicago) — Most coaches do not stick around long enough to appear on this list twice, but there is a first time for everything. Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace got a stay of execution and now have a year to see what they can do with Justin Fields, who is a clear and obvious upgrade on former starter Mitchell Trubisky. Naturally, Nagy decided to start the season with Andy Dalton under center, which makes you wonder if Nagy is actually trying to get fired.

Mike McCarthy (Dallas) — Two years is awfully early to pull the plug on a coach, but this is Jerry Jones we are talking about. Dallas is loaded and ready to bounce back after a 2020 season that was lost the moment Dak Prescott’s season ended in Week Five. If a healthy Cowboys team fails to make the playoffs this season, McCarthy’s seat will be white hot.

David Culley (Houston) — Houston’s front office is leaving Culley out to dry. The most dysfunctional front office in the NFL let their new coach take bullets on the Deshaun Watson front without actually giving Culley any useful information. Culley already appears to be a lame duck coach. Do not be surprised if Houston’s front office cuts bait on Culley this winter in order to allow unofficial coach-in-waiting Josh McCown a completely clean slate in 2022, following Watson’s inevitable departure.

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