A few weeks back, while filling in for colleague Albert Breer’s weekly mailbag column, I was asked by editor Mitch Goldich what the worst prediction I’ve ever made was. On my old podcast, The Weak-Side Podcast with Jenny Vrentas, I played a character that was skilled in the art of prognostication, and we had entire episodes based on the horrendous predictions I’d made throughout the year.
But looking back on it, my worst job may have been an absolutely earnest effort. In August of last year, I wrote a piece on the 12 teams that could realistically win the Super Bowl. When it comes to the art of the prediction, this is an ideal post because it has a long runway and the chances of being right when you list a third of the league are pretty good!
Of course, I left the Buccaneers—and Tom Brady—off the list. You don’t get points for having the top three seeds in each conference when, ultimately, you leave the Super Bowl champion out of the mix. Lesson learned. Never doubt Brady.
That, due to the sheer volume of guesses I had, was the worst prediction I’ve ever made.
This year, I’ve reformulated my approach a little bit and have tried to tuck all my ingrained biases aside. Like in the NBA this year, I feel like there is a wider total number of teams that could win the Super Bowl, so we’ll stick with 12. There are two quarterbacks in significant new spaces. Dak Prescott has returned from injury, possibly healthier than ever. There’s a lot of mystery here, which is, ultimately, why we sign up to devote our lives to this year after year.
Let’s break the whole thing down, team by team.
Last year’s finish: 14–2, AFC West champion, lost to Buccaneers in the Super Bowl
Why they can win it all in 2021: This one doesn’t require a lengthy explanation. The Chiefs have the best and most versatile quarterback in the NFL, a player who can punish you in myriad ways, and the most creative play-caller in the league. That said, I think we can safely forecast a bit more struggling this year. The Chiefs greatly outperformed their Pythagorean win-loss expectations from 2020, thanks in large part to a pandemic that throttled the offseason and weighted advantages on existing, successful QB-coach combinations. This year, they’ll be in a much tougher division, featuring Vic Fangio’s most talented defense to date and Brandon Staley, who, while defensive coordinator of the Rams, nearly broke a record for fewest second-half points allowed in NFL history.
Last year’s finish: 11–5, wild card, won Super Bowl
Why they can win it all in 2021: It is nearly impossible to repeat in today’s NFL, though Tom Brady was the last quarterback to do it and, again, we are done expressing any form of doubt in the greatest player the league has ever seen. Tampa’s tough, duo-laden run scheme punished opponents late in the season and borrowed well from a vintage Belichick-ian strategy that often saw his teams morph into power punchers late in the season. Now that they’ve retained their entire roster, they can build on some of their major strengths (Tampa was one of the best play-action teams in the NFL last year, even though the Bucs almost never utilized it) and attack the field with a more diverse blend of the Brady and Bruce Arians offenses.
Last year’s finish: 11–5, wild card, lost to Chiefs in the divisional round
Why they can win it all in 2021: The Browns were one of the more balanced teams in the NFL last year, despite some glaring holes on the defensive side of the ball. While it’s always difficult to place too many expectations on the shoulders of rookie corners and hybrid linebackers, the additions of Greg Newsome II, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tony Fields II made them significantly tougher and more versatile in a division that requires thickness to fend off serious downhill running, flexibility to match mobile quarterbacks and good tight end play, and multifaceted coverage skills for the wide variety of deep-threat receivers. Their running game is under the care of Bill Callahan, one of the greatest offensive line coaches and run-game coordinators in NFL history, and features a deep stable of backs who keep pressure off Baker Mayfield (he was under less pressure than only eight other quarterbacks in the NFL last year). If Cleveland can build on its success from a year ago and find itself as a slightly more capable team defending the pass, it could surge to the conference championship.
Last year’s finish: 13–3, AFC East champion, lost to Chiefs in the conference championship
Why they can win it all in 2021: While the Bills may have ultimately missed their window (Josh Allen will be a $40 million-plus player next year and Buffalo must begin to budget accordingly), they are still a tremendously well-coached team with a sound defense and one of the best matchup-based offensive coordinators in the NFL. Allen’s ability to scare teams as both a deep passer and power runner made Buffalo a continuous threat in 2020 and will likely do so again this year. Their ability to pick apart opponents could be seen in the fact that they were still logging a league-best 0.14 EPA per play rating on plays that did not feature backfield motion or any sort of presnap window dressing. Allen allows you to simply line up and play tough football. With the addition of both Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr., the Bills have indicated to all of us that being a middling pressure team is unacceptable, especially in the ho-hum AFC East. Following the Buccaneers’ blueprint, their hope is that an overload of skilled rushers can maximize a talented secondary.
Last year’s finish: 13–3, NFC North champion, lost to Buccaneers in conference championship
Why they can win it all in 2021: The Packers, like the 49ers, have mastered the Mike Shanahan–Alex Gibbs outside zone system that perfectly marries the run and pass games together. Once a system like this is perfected and the roster is built around it, you become stronger with the years each coach and quarterback spend in the offense. Unfortunately, Aaron Rodgers’s absence has caused a bit of a standstill on the development front, but that won’t stop coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett from continuing to identify critical mismatches to exploit across a vulnerable division. While the Packers would not make this list if Jordan Love were their full-time starter in 2021, I think they could still be good enough to compete for, and possibly eke out, a division win if things got NFC East–style sloppy.
Last year’s finish: 10–6, wild card, lost to Packers in divisional round
Why they can win it all in 2021: We’re told the addition of Matthew Stafford will make the Rams a completely different team this year, though that remains to be seen. Interestingly enough, the Rams were a potent offensive team when Sean McVay was pulling the puppet strings in Jared Goff’s helmet before the snap. What happens now, when there is more autonomy and, theoretically, creativity at the position? At best, Stafford hits all the throws Goff couldn’t, or didn’t recognize were there. And that is enough to overcome the loss of an excellent defensive coordinator and the best safety in football last year. Either way, the Rams are all in, and after Tampa Bay’s sudden Super Bowl surge, it’s a tactic one has to respect when the coach and quarterback are both top-notch.
Last year’s finish: 6–10, last place in the NFC West
Why they can win it all in 2021: This is still a team that bullied its way to a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo under center two years ago. The 49ers were decimated by injuries last year and, by the middle of the season, were completely unrecognizable from the juggernaut that seemed to be forming the year before. Kyle Shanahan is still a sharp mind, and while he lost a ton of brain power on the coaching staff this offseason with the departures of Robert Saleh, John Benton and Mike LaFleur, he still has the talented Mike McDaniel at his side, along with offensive line guru Chris Foerster. While some people might cock their heads at this pick, Garoppolo is certainly motivated to play his way into another starting role elsewhere in 2022 and the 49ers also have the option, whenever they so choose, to pull the rip cord on Trey Lance and introduce a little chaos into defensive meeting rooms everywhere.
Last year’s finish: 6–10, third place in the NFC East
Why they can win it all in 2021: With Prescott back and healthy, all things are possible. While the jury is still out on Mike McCarthy sans Brett Favre or Rodgers in terms of his ability to run an operation and read a room, the Cowboys have made significant strides this offseason to shore up glaring issues. The hiring of Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator could be instrumental in lifting the sour mood left behind a year ago. The Cowboys have one of the deepest linebacking corps in football, which will help them weather a conference that will test their ability to defend the run against multiple schemes with talented backs.
Last year’s finish: 11–5, wild card, lost to Bills in the divisional round
Why they can win it all in 2021: This is one of the most complete teams in football. Should Rock Ya-Sin take a step forward, helping the Colts round out their secondary instead of merely masking it, Indianapolis could not only cruise to an AFC South title (sorry, Titans) but make some noise in the playoffs. The major question mark here would seem to be Carson Wentz, but pairing him with Frank Reich again ensures that there will be an offense with more stable checks and balances. When Reich fled to Indianapolis back in 2018, so did Wentz’s expectations of a reasonably digestible set of progressions behind center. That caused bad habits and bad blood, both of which are gone now.
10. Baltimore Ravens
Last year’s finish: 11–5, wild card, lost to Bills in divisional round
Why they can win it all in 2021: Having a gifted playmaker like Lamar Jackson ensures you’ll be in the mix regardless of how circumstances fall around him. Last season was a disappointment, largely a reflection of some financial decisions the Ravens probably wish they could have back, as well as some critical roster happenings out of their control. The additions of two capable wide receivers into the scheme should be enough to bolster an offense that found itself susceptible to pressure (Baltimore was the 16th-most pressured team in football last year), given the team’s tendency to run the ball. Jackson needs to change his heat map in order to be truly effective beyond what the scheme is providing, and bringing in both Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman will be a critical step in that direction. The Ravens are undoubtedly trying to stretch the field more this year, which brings us to a fascinating evaluation period for Jackson, who has already shown us so much.
11. Seattle Seahawks
Last year’s finish: 12–4, NFC West champion, lost to Rams in the wild-card round
Why they can win it all in 2021: This is sort of a legacy gift to Russell Wilson, who, along with his cadre of talented receivers, is about the only thing worth having faith in. Wilson’s hot start in 2020 was stymied when the Seahawks receded their plans to run a full-throttle passing offense. The addition of Shane Waldron as offensive coordinator shows an interest in possibly melding the pass and run games like the 49ers, Rams and Packers have done in the past, though it’s a long and sometimes arduous process when the offensive line talent lags in some areas. Until Pete Carroll’s defense retains some of its teeth, though, it’s hard to envision Seattle actually winning the Super Bowl outside of some true Wilson hero ball.
Last year’s finish: 7–9, third place in the AFC West
Why they can win it all in 2021: If there is one coach who can have a Kevin Stefanski–type effect on his roster in Year 1, it’s Brandon Staley. The defense, which failed to generate much pressure and was gouged against certain rushing offenses in 2020, will inevitably be better. The quarterback, reigning rookie of the year Justin Herbert, is another story. Staley is a former quarterback who obviously understands the position intimately, though his choice of offensive coordinator was a bit underwhelming. Joe Lombardi, in fewer than two years as the Lions’ offensive coordinator in 2014 and ’15, was 19th and 18th in net yards per attempt, respectively. There was no top 10 finish in points, and Lombardi was dismissed after Week 7 of that second season. There are going to be some difficult aspects of Anthony Lynn’s tenure with the Chargers to replace. For example, the Chargers were eighth in facing pressure last year thanks to a porous offensive line (which has since been repaired via the draft and free agency). Yet, no team finished with a better EPA per play average against pressure than them—with a rookie quarterback who was not the presumptive starter out of camp. Truly incredible.
One noticeable absence
It was between the Colts, Chargers and Patriots for our final spot on the list. I still fully expect Bill Belichick to find his way back into the playoff picture, though it may ultimately be difficult to break in a rookie starter, while transitioning the offense from Cam Newton to win a Super Bowl. Still, it is with a great deal of anguish that I make this decision (similar to the level of angst I felt replacing Trey Lance with Mac Jones at the 11th hour before my final mock draft was published). Part of me expects the Patriots to come out and destroy opponents this year. But without hard evidence as to what it might look like, or who will be taking a majority of the snaps under center, the scales tipped slightly in favor of the Reich/Wentz relationship, and Staley’s ability to quickly improve an already talented defense.
So, after leaving the greatest player in NFL history off my list a year ago, I’ve opted to leave the greatest coach in NFL history off my list this year. Congratulations in advance, New England fans, on your Super Bowl LVI title.
More From Conor Orr:
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• 10 NFL Players Who Could Make Their First Pro Bowl in 2021
• Six Losing Teams in 2020 That Will Make the Playoffs in 2021