It may be hard to believe, but NFL football is back this week. We are a week removed from a shortened preseason, and in just a few days, the first 17 game season in NFL history will kick off. It’s time for my annual tradition of NFL season predictions. In this post, I’ll be predicting how each division will pan out and which team will win it all, beginning with the AFC East. This division, which includes my hometown Patriots, should be more competitive than it has been in a long time.
- Buffalo Bills (12-5, #3 seed in AFC)
- New England Patriots (9-8, #7 seed in AFC)
- Miami Dolphins (9-8)
- New York Jets (2-15)
The Jets offense should show flashes of upside with Zach Wilson under center. However, the defense is still among the league’s weakest and Wilson will have to rely on several other rookies in order to succeed. This isn’t quite their time to shine. I’m sure they’ll make things easier for Wilson with a pair of 1st round picks in 2022.
The division will likely come down to the defending champion Buffalo Bills, Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and a young, rising Miami Dolphins squad. I don’t see the Bills taking much of a step back from 2020, so they are in the best spot to win this division. That doesn’t count out the Pats or Dolphins from snagging a wild card spot. Belichick led the Patriots to a 7-9 season with Cam Newton at QB and very few reliable receiving options. After adding tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, wide receiver Nelson Agholor, and several defensive assets, I think they’ll be back in the playoffs. The Dolphins also supplied QB Tua Tagovailoa with some new weapons in Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller, but in a competitive AFC, I think the Pats will edge out Miami for the final wild card spot.
- Cleveland Browns (12-5, #2 seed in AFC)
- Baltimore Ravens (10-7, #6 seed in AFC)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8)
- Cincinnati Bengals (4-13)
After years of disappointment, the Browns now have one of the most well-rounded rosters in football. They have an improving defense, an excellent RB duo, a strong group of receivers and tight ends, and a promising quarterback in Baker Mayfield. The trajectory of this team really comes down to how much Mayfield can improve after an impressive 2020. I have confidence that with this supporting cast and a great coach in Kevin Stefanski, he can take that next step and lead Cleveland to their first division win of the century.
Meanwhile, I’m expecting QB Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to take a slight step back. They recently lost running back J.K. Dobbins for the season and rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman has also been placed on IR. Without enough weapons, Jackson could find himself struggling to get rid of the ball and running for his life as he did in parts of 2020. It doesn’t help matters that they face tough divisional competition: an improving Browns squad and a Steelers team that should still be competitive. I don’t think Pittsburgh quite makes the playoffs though. Roethlisberger will continue to decline and the offensive line and defense may take a step back after offseason turnover.
Cincinnati’s future is bright, but they still have several problems to resolve before they can think about competing in this division. The defense could still use plenty of improvement. The offensive line looks a little better but could still cause quarterback Joe Burrow (coming off an ACL tear) and running back Joe Mixon some problems. It’s also seemed to affect Burrow’s psyche in camp. Burrow and his rookie wide receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, have both underwhelmed. Chase’s struggles are likely due to the fact that he’s had two years off, and that could take time to recover from as well. The team looks good on paper, but I just don’t think they’re quite prepared for the highly competitive nature of this conference.
- Tennessee Titans (11-6, #4 seed in AFC)
- Indianapolis Colts (8-9)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (6-11)
- Houston Texans (1-16)
The Titans are still flawed on the defensive side of the ball, but the raw talent they have on offense is unmatched. Ryan Tannehill has been a top 10 QB since joining the Titans, and he has a superstar running back in Derrick Henry as well as two very talented receivers in Julio Jones and A.J. Brown. That’ll be enough to win this AFC South. Many believe the Colts will compete for this division, but it’s hard to imagine quarterback Carson Wentz improving very much without better receivers to throw to. If Indy wanted Wentz to improve, they should have gotten him a star #1 receiver to counter Tennessee’s trade for Julio Jones. Wentz will be supported by a strong defense, RB corps and offensive line, but that won’t be enough for him to lead the Colts to the playoffs.
While the Jaguars won’t compete this year, I expect the offense to have its moments with a generational rookie QB in Trevor Lawrence coming in. This defense still needs improvement, but the Jaguars should still finish comfortably ahead of the Houston Texans. Between his court case and his trade demands, it is unlikely QB Deshaun Watson will ever play in a Texans uniform again. Watson was already frustrated by the lack of talent around him, so it’ll be hard for the Texans to do much of anything with Watson out of the picture.
- Kansas City Chiefs (15-2, #1 seed in AFC)
- Los Angeles Chargers (13-4, #5 seed in AFC)
- Denver Broncos (9-8)
- Las Vegas Raiders (6-11)
The West is going to be another strong division in this conference, possibly the strongest in the league. The Chiefs will likely finish out on top as they return majority of their back to back AFC champion roster, including superstar QB Patrick Mahomes. The rest of this division should see improvement though. For the Charrgers, quarterback Justin Herbert had a historic rookie year, but it didn’t really translate to success for the team. With a new coaching staff, I expect this offense to stay on track while the defense and special teams also take a step up. That’ll be enough for the team to safely secure a wild card spot.
The Broncos struggled mightily last year for a variety of reasons. However, new QB Teddy Bridgewater gives them a fairly safe floor due to his short to medium range reliability, and a fully healthy Denver defense could also impress. That’ll leave the Raiders in the basement of the division. Las Vegas should put up some competitive games, but nothing about this team really stands out, and they’ll fall short of their competition.
- New York Giants (9-8, #4 seed in NFC)
- Dallas Cowboys (9-8, #6 seed in NFC)
- Washington Football Team (6-11)
- Philadelphia Eagles (3-14)
This division will look fairly similar to how it did in 2020, though I expect a different outcome in the end. Last year, the Washington Football Team came out on top. However, I feel the Giants have improved their offense enough to surpass Washington and the Cowboys would have been ahead of them if quarterback Dak Prescott was healthy. I have the Giants edging out the division victory. This will be a make or break season for quarterback Daniel Jones. With running back Saquon Barkley back from a torn ACL and Kenny Golladay, Ka’darius Toney, and Kyle Rudolph joining the Giants receiving corps, I expect Jones to make a leap. Even though Washington made some offensive additions, I’m not sure they’ll be able to overcome a suspect QB situation and an offensive line that lacks depth.
I have the Eagles remaining in the division’s basement. I’m not sure the new coaching staff is much of an upgrade over Doug Pederson, and the team seems to be rebuilding around young QB Jalen Hurts. It’ll be a little while before the Eagles compete again, and I’m not sure how much trust I have in Howie Roseman to build the team back up.
- Minnesota Vikings (13-4, #2 seed in NFC)
- Green Bay Packers (13-4, #5 seed in NFC)
- Chicago Bears (8-9)
- Detroit Lions (2-15)
I think this division will truly be a neck and neck battle between the Packers and Vikings. It’s unclear if quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be able to repeat his 2020 numbers. It seems he is motivated to make the most of his “Last Dance”, but at the same time a frustrated Rodgers might not play as well. This isn’t about a decline from Rodgers though. The Vikings offense looked very good last year with rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson making a huge impact in a matter of weeks. Now, the defense seems to be in much better shape compared to 2020, and that’ll allow the Vikings to compete not only for a playoff spot, but also challenge the Packers for this NFC North.
The Bears have some nice talent across their roster, but until rookie QB Justin Fields gets his chance, I can’t quite see them competing for anything. Even once Fields starts, we can’t be sure how good he’ll be out of the gate. The Bears should finish ahead of a rebuilding Detroit Lions squad. I think the Lions are on the right track, but it won’t translate to success in 2021.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (15-2, #1 seed in NFC)
- New Orleans Saints (9-8)
- Carolina Panthers (8-9)
- Atlanta Falcons (6-11)
After winning the Super Bowl with ease, Tampa returns all 22 of their offensive and defensive starters. This offense should be explosive as QB Tom Brady can utilize the legendary WR trio of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown for a full season. The Bucs should finish well ahead of the Saints, who I expect to take a slight step back. I’m a believer in the bounce back of new starting QB Jameis Winston. However, his top wide receiver in Michael Thomas will be missing at least the first 6 games of the season, leaving Winston rather short on reliable weapons. Once Thomas returns, I do expect the Saints to go on a good run, but a slow start will prevent playoff contention.
I expect the Panthers and Falcons to start the season ahead of New Orleans before slowing down later. QB Sam Darnold was awful with Adam Gase and the Jets, but he should at least give off the illusion that he’s a good quarterback in this Panthers system. With Joe Brady at offensive coordinator and a plethora of options to throw to, Darnold is set up for success. I just don’t know that he’ll be quite good enough to keep the Panthers in playoff contention, especially considering the fact that Carolina’s defense lacks standout players. Atlanta should also have an explosive offense. As Julio Jones departs, the Falcons have added Kyle Pitts, who might very well be the most talented tight end of all time. The problem is that the defense has not given much support to this high scoring offensive unit since at least 2016, and things will only go downhill for Atlanta as quarterback Matt Ryan ages.
- Los Angeles Rams (11-6, #3 seed in NFC)
- Arizona Cardinals (9-8, #7 seed in NFC)
- Seattle Seahawks (9-8)
- San Francisco 49ers (6-11)
This division has been hyped up as the league’s toughest, but I’m not sure it’s really as good as people say it is. Personally I feel like the AFC West is stronger. The 49ers have received a lot of hype as they are seen as the perfect fit for rookie quarterback Trey Lance. I think we all need to hold our horses a bit with the 49ers hype. The future is bright for Lance in San Francisco, but I don’t expect instant NFL success out of an FCS quarterback who last played football in 2019. Right now, the Niners uncertain QB situation is going to hold them back.
The Seahawks and Cardinals should at least compete for playoff spots. Seattle took the division last year but they remain heavily reliant on their home field advantage and have much room for improvement on defense. Arizona has been seen by many as the odd one out in this competitive division, but Kyler Murray has led this team to some big games and will only continue to improve. The defense is also on the rise.
I see the Rams as the clear favorites for this division. They bring in quarterback Matthew Stafford who has gone from a troubled Lions system to a Rams team that is already built for success. So long as Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey can continue to lead this defense to elite performance, the Rams could be title contenders.
I think the historic significance of this season will go beyond the fact that it’s 17 games long. I also have a team that was once the joke of the NFL making history. They will not only win their division, but also by making a surprising playoff run and win their first Super Bowl ever. The team I’m talking about is the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have built up so much talent and hired a good coaching staff in an effort to elevate Baker Mayfield’s performance. In these playoffs, I fully expect that to happen, as Mayfield keeps up with elite QBs like Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and Tom Brady on the road to his first ring.
Mahomes, Allen, and Brady will all lead their teams on playoff runs and entertain Super Bowl contention. However, I expect Mayfield and the well rounded Browns roster to stop them in their tracks. I cannot name one weakness that this Browns team has, and that will serve them well as they exploit the weaknesses of the teams around them to boost their Super Bowl run.
While I expect the Browns to make it out of a competitive AFC and win it all, I think the Bucs have a much easier road to the NFC title. Matthew Stafford’s Rams could pose a threat to Tampa, as could Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, but these are teams that this Buccaneers squad is capable of defeating. Cleveland is another animal, and I think in a matchup against the Browns, Tampa will have met their match. Mayfield will be able to do the same things with his offense that Brady can do with this Bucs offense, and that will cause Brady frustration in a back and forth game.
There was a lot of hype about last year’s Super Bowl, and it ended up being a blowout. I expect this year’s title game to be much more exciting. However, this is a long way from now, and in the meantime, we await Week 1. I’ll have more coverage on Week 1 action in the coming days, so stay tuned.