Welcome back to our familiar exercise this time of year—trying to guess, in some cases more than four months in advance, who will win each game of the NFL season. I’m told this is always one of The MMQB’s most popular posts of the summer. No pressure.
Looking at all 272 games from a wide lens, as single chapters in a long storybook, can help us envision some of the familiar vacillations of a season. Breaking things down this way helps us see that, for example, the Cardinals’ schedule is brutal. Even if you like the forward momentum of their offseason, it would be difficult to run through this exercise and imagine them traversing their slate to reach the playoffs.
This year, one top challenge came from figuring out how, and when, to incorporate five rookie quarterbacks. We have the 49ers going on a bit of a late winning streak after the projected Trey Lance handoff, and the Bears also hitting their stride after a sensible Justin Fields takeover window.
You will also inevitably see some streaks. We give each team a final record, but you can’t expect them to play at that general level the entire season. Thus the Packers’ and Titans’ both getting off to 5–0 starts. And the Colts’ limping out to 0–5 (thanks to a schedule as brutal as Arizona's), regardless of when Carson Wentz takes his first snap. They are not alone at 0–5, but the other teams are less surprising.
Judging by our results in 2020, it seems our process improved somewhat. We had some serious misses, which Bills fans reminded us of diligently after we picked them to finish 7–9, but there were some encouraging hits as well.
We nailed exactly the record of the Jaguars, Seahawks and Broncos. We came within one game for the Steelers, Ravens, Titans, Buccaneers and Rams. We accurately predicted the momentary decline of the 49ers after their Super Bowl season and the rise of the Browns to an above .500 record.
So, that’s roughly one-third of the league spoken for, which helps us maintain that there is value in the exercise.
Enough chatter, though. Let’s get to the part where you read this and DM me some horrible insults. Last year, my favorite was someone who suggested I should lose my job because I missed the Steelers’ record by what turned out to be one game. One game! The hope is that we have no major whiffs (like the Bills) and that we can calibrate for some of the factors that contribute to large misses. I would encourage you to tell me what you think, but I’m confident you’re already on it.
The AFC East hinges on the recovering arm of Cam Newton and the developing arm of Tua Tagovailoa. Early glimpses of Tagovailoa have been alternately promising and concerning, though those vacillations are not as extreme as they were a year ago. The Dolphins are moving to an offense that is probably more familiar to those in Buffalo. Miami will try to spread teams out with an incredible—on paper—slate of wide receivers, which, on normal downs in 11-personnel, should be Will Fuller, DeVante Parker and Jaylen Waddle. Then, defenses will be forced to allocate resources to stopping Tagovailoa’s mobility or to covering three receivers who pose a ton of matchup difficulties. Newton has also looked good, though Mac Jones’s timing and delivery have been close to pitch perfect this preseason. It would not be stunning to see him take the full-time job and pilot a more efficient version of the Patriots’ offense.
The Bills should remain the class of the division, especially after the surgical work they’ve done on their pass rush throughout the offseason. Buffalo’s defense was adequate at creating pressure but failed in certain spots to deliver the kind of knockout blows that would pull this team beyond the conference title game. The additions of Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham should provide some immediate return.
The Jets’ hope this year is to establish something that will hold up long term. Robert Saleh’s work has largely been on the culture front thus far, ingraining himself with a young roster almost completely devoid of veteran leadership. The Jets will struggle this year, as most young teams with rookie quarterbacks tend to out of the gate. The difference will be whether they can hang tough in games where they saw themselves blown out a year ago.
The extra game allowed me to give Mike Tomlin a true winning record this year, and while it’s possible Ben Roethlisberger will look better in 2021 than he did last season, with another year removed from surgery, there’s also the chance that his ceiling is around the surprisingly efficient play in ’20 of Philip Rivers. This would not be bad, but it would rob Pittsburgh of one of its essential ingredients of success: the time Roethlisberger has been able to take in the backfield to allow complex routes to develop and the arm strength to feed those receivers. Last year, Roethlisberger’s completion percentage plummeted the deeper he was asked to throw, to the point where he was significantly below average on anything beyond 12 yards. The promotion of offensive coordinator Matt Canada can help matters, specifically given how creative he is in the backfield manipulating defenses, though a lack of deep flavor is hard to overcome in an offense.
Atop the division, it should be a race between Cleveland and Baltimore. The Browns feel best suited to take over the division, with a punishing running game and a slightly more functional passing game. Their entire offseason was devoted to toughening themselves on the defensive side of the ball in order to best contend with Baltimore’s run-first offense.
It is unclear at this point how good the Bengals can be, but in looking at their schedule, it’s difficult to find wins. Joe Burrow is great but is coming off a very serious knee injury and could take a season to bounce back. Outside of an early stretch where Cincinnati gets the Bears, Jaguars and Lions all within six weeks, they are mostly overmatched from a personnel standpoint each week. Am I a little biased by the offensive struggles in camp? Perhaps. Am I jaded by the Bengals’ taking a wide receiver over an offensive tackle? Maybe. But it’s difficult for me to subscribe to the Bengals rising narrative given the evidence at hand right now, just as it’s difficult to envision some large pockets on the schedule where they can find some room to grow.
You read this correctly: I have the Colts starting 0–5, but coming all the way back to finish 10–7. Frank Reich is a good coach, Chris Ballard is a good general manager and Carson Wentz, whenever healthy, is a good quarterback. It’s difficult to imagine that they would be decimated by the preseason injuries suffered by Wentz and Quenton Nelson (which looked worse at the outset), even if those injuries are to the starting quarterback and their best offensive lineman. The Titans, though, should be able to capitalize on the opening and find their way to a second straight division title. Tennessee edged out Indianapolis on divisional record last year, and it promises to be a similarly tight race again in 2021. While the departure of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is concerning, the Titans are bought in enough on outside zone to run it in his absence. New coordinator Todd Downing was the tight ends coach in the scheme most recently, which is an integral part of the offense as they need to have one foot each in the offensive line room, running back room and receivers room (that’s three feet!). The Jaguars are the biggest mystery here. While they should be able to start quickly and win games thanks to a sensible, run-first approach that will ease Trevor Lawrence into NFL life, the roster—especially on the defensive side of the ball—is going to struggle to contain two of the best running backs in the league, who happen to play in their division.
And then we come to the Texans, a team that may prove us wrong in the way the Dolphins of 2019 proved us wrong by winning more than a single game. This is a subprime roster full of unproven young players and veterans hanging on to one last NFL contract. The glue here is Tyrod Taylor, an above average, oft underutilized quarterback who can win games in multiple ways. Maybe Houston will sneak out a win or two more than it deserves based solely on Taylor and his relationship with rising star offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. The one advantage to importing a handful of New England role players is that you may, by osmosis, accidentally stumble into a victory or two.
I don’t think we appreciate how good the Chiefs were in 2020. Throughout the offseason, any minor complaint about their offense would contain the standard gripe about their offensive line and possibly an inability to become a downhill power team when necessary. The Chiefs were 23rd in rushing attempts and 16th in yards per attempt last year, but when actually looking at the numbers, they had one of the highest success rates on runs in the NFL last season. Sharp Football Statistics had them running at the same efficiency level as the Ravens and one percentage point lower than the Titans. Perhaps Clyde Edwards-Helaire didn’t put up the fantasy numbers you’d hoped for, but this offense was still devastating with him on the field. So why do I have them losing three more games, despite all the improvements? Age, for one, is an inevitable detractor in the NFL. Travis Kelce is entering his age-32 season, and is a player who is asked to do an awful lot within his offense. Kelce blocks like an upper-echelon right tackle and catches the ball at a pace reminiscent of the top wideouts in the NFL. Ask Rob Gronkowski how easy that is to sustain deep into your early 30s without significant rest. Tyreek Hill is also in his age-27 season, and while his speed may not bottom out, the NFL has now had seven years to come up with ways to stop him. Despite a career high in touchdowns last year, Hill’s yards per target was at an all-time low, and his catch percentage was the second-worst of his career. Again, this does not indicate diminishing skills but a heightened difficulty in getting him the football so he can use said skills.
The second factor in the Chiefs’ coming down to Earth a bit is the Chargers’ expected rise. Brandon Staley, their new head coach, emerged on the carousel somewhat late in the process last year but caused quite a stir when he did. Staley was so impressive in his defensive coordinator interview with Sean McVay two years back that the typically open-minded McVay halted the process and hired him on the spot. Staley seems to have that effect on hiring managers. If his defense, which has a similar flavor as the Rams’ personnel-wise, can come remotely close to the top-ranked Rams defense from a year ago that allowed a league-low 5.1 net yards per passing attempt, the Chargers are going to contend not only for a playoff spot but for the division.
In the battle for third, we have the Raiders and Broncos, and while the safe bet is typically the team with the more established quarterback—in this case, Derek Carr—there is reason to believe that Vic Fangio’s defense this year could be one of his best. The Broncos have an incredibly deep cornerback depth chart, a top-five pass rush, a top-three safety tandem and a top-five interior defensive line tandem. While they’re going to have to figure out a way to manufacture 24 points per game with Pat Shurmur and Teddy Bridgewater, there is a good chance they’ll finish the season as one of the best defenses in the NFL.
We could certainly be overlooking the Raiders, but even as they made necessary changes at defensive coordinator (Gus Bradley in, Paul Gunther out), they continued to hang their secondary out to dry in a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. Nick Kwiatkoski is a good linebacker, but is he going to be enough to stop offenses that can essentially come into each matchup comfortably deciding which way they want to dissect the Raiders? I understand the optimist’s case, that Maxx Crosby will come back to form and Yannick Ngakoue is a diamond in the rough, but it’s not a scenario I’d feel comfortable betting on.
Like most years in the NFC East, there are at least three teams good enough to win this division and none good enough to win the Super Bowl. While the Cowboys may surprise us (there was a version of this exercise where I had them winning 12 games), there is a lot to like about the Giants coming into this season. Their offensive line woes are pronounced, though no more severe than any other team in the division, save for Washington. During a stop at Giants camp, it was easy to see Daniel Jones is taking a quantum leap from 2020. Jones may always have a bit of Eli Manning in him when it comes to turnover propensity, but he’s tough, athletic and impressively unflappable after two roller-coaster seasons in a row.
The return of Dak Prescott (shoulder injury pending) makes Dallas an obvious divisional favorite, especially when you consider his talented skill set and continued relationship with coordinator Kellen Moore. Before his gruesome ankle injury last year, Prescott was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football. That shouldn’t change. The Cowboys will also be better defensively, with possibly one of the deepest linebacking rooms in the NFL, and an improved coordinator/scheme with the import of Dan Quinn.
Washington is a dark horse to win this division, and, quite honestly, to make some noise in the playoffs. We made the point on a recent MMQB podcast that, when it comes to their makeup, they are a poor man’s Buccaneers. This team could easily rattle off 11 wins in 2021 if the Ryan Fitzpatrick Tilt-A-Whirl is set to a comfortable level of chaos. They may have the best front combination in the NFL. Their defense will be brutal on young or relatively inexperienced quarterbacks, which they’ll see in eight of their 18 games this year.
We’ve now reached the point of this preseason where Eagles opportunists are climbing out of the woodwork as well, because shooting your shot costs nothing. Jalen Hurts could very well be the star some in the building believe, or this could be a sloppily constructed bridge toward their next Super Bowl bid a few years from now. The Carson Wentz injury in Indianapolis complicates their ability to enter the 2022 draft with three first-round picks (and, thus, the ammunition to acquire almost any quarterback they’d like), but they may still struggle enough to get there, anyway. Their receiver corps, if ever healthy, can provide a nice window into the future. Their development in ’21 could be the biggest reason for optimism.
Projecting the NFC North beyond Green Bay was difficult. The Vikings haven’t had the most harmonious of offseasons and appear to be gearing up for their quarterback to leave town (eventually). While the talent level is adequate enough for a playoff run, the NFC in general is crowded, with the West capable of sending three teams and the South maintaining a two-team stronghold as well. Outside of the major skill positions, which all feature elite talent, the Vikings are good everywhere else. While this is usually a recipe, when combined with a head coach as talented as Mike Zimmer, for success, the talent level in Green Bay demands something closer to exceptional across the board.
The Packers are the runaway favorite here, with a quarterback at peace entering a third year in the most dynamic offensive system in football. Green Bay made important changes on the defensive coaching staff, retained critical cog pieces like Marcedes Lewis and drafted a potential star in the making in the first round, nabbing Eric Stokes out of Georgia to pair with top-rated cornerback Jaire Alexander.
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The Bears will be a better team next year, despite missing the playoffs and finishing 2021 with a worse record. While we’re looking at this as a playoffs-or-bust scenario, it’s highly unlikely Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace would have had greenlit the decision to draft Justin Fields if there wasn’t some kind of understanding that young quarterbacks take time to develop.
In Detroit, the Lions will be a poor man’s version of the Titans. They will not contend for the division right away, but they will be incredibly difficult to play and will be able to mop up clock time (theoretically) with their budding offensive line, talented coordinator and stable of capable backs. Jared Goff’s ultimate success or failure doesn’t seem like it will make or break this team, which has a “long-term project” feel to it. If he is an expensive bridge option to the eventual quarterback of the future, so be it.
Shame on us for doubting the Buccaneers last year. While we had them winning 10 games, we had them missing the playoffs, being edged out by the Falcons. That won’t be the case in 2021, when Tampa Bay comes into the season riding a tailwind of great understanding that flowed from the end of last year. The Bucs caught a lot of breaks en route to their Super Bowl title, but also successfully melded two offenses to the point where they could resemble the best of what New England always was—a good power running team at its core, with the ability to seek out and take advantage of certain mismatches throughout the course of a game. While we often tend to develop a special kind of amnesia this time of year, forgetting that teams rarely make it back to the Super Bowl the following year, Tampa Bay did return all requisite pieces of an already very talented roster. With Tom Brady as their Pied Piper, the Buccaneers roll on.
The Saints arrive as the great mystery. We’ve seen the plan for post–Drew Brees life flicker on random Sundays during a few Brees stints on the injury report. It would not be surprising to see New Orleans try to become something closer to what we’ve seen in San Francisco or even Baltimore. Their strength is clearly on the offensive line. They have a battering ram former special teams ace and tight end vying to be their quarterback, and Taysom Hill may continue to get snaps even if Jameis Winston lands the prime gig. Defenses are still largely on the lighter side, and Sean Payton can win games now by running the wheels off Alvin Kamara.
In Atlanta, we know what we are going to see, just not precisely how it will turn out. The Falcons’ hiring directive was clear this offseason: Get someone who knows the offense that got us to the Super Bowl in 2016. Arthur Smith has been running a version of the Kyle Shanahan offense he learned from Matt LaFleur in Nashville. He’ll be bringing that to Atlanta with a reimagined Falcons offense that no longer contains Julio Jones (interestingly enough, the exact, prototypical wide receiver one in that scheme, which Jones is now running again in Tennessee). This year we should see some real baby Calvin Johnson moments from tight end Kyle Pitts, who, as much as he’ll be a great tight end, will also be an apt, physical WR1 type that can replace some of what Jones did well in the system for Shanahan. If we’re being 100% honest, the Falcons and the Saints caused us the most trepidation on this list. They were the two teams that may have gotten criminally underrated.
In the division’s basement, there are the Panthers. Other coaches had the same thought as Matt Rhule and Joe Brady; that Sam Darnold can be fixed, and that his shortcomings were simply the failures of the Jets organization. While this is sometimes a safe bet, I have heard some vehement opposition to that notion. Darnold may have simply been overdrafted, which is not a reflection of him, but obviously a reflection of irreparably broken draft processes. The Panthers were left out of this offseason’s game of QB musical chairs and are prepared to pay the price. Was Darnold truly an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater, who already knew the scheme? We’re about to find out. Perhaps Carolina will win more than four games, stealing a game or two from the Saints’ and Falcons’ totals. But I don’t see this roster composition as one prepared to compete in 2021.
Anything less than first place for a somewhat healthy Rams team is unacceptable and will begin to create the hot spotlight of palace intrigue around the power brokers in L.A. This is both the curse and beauty of a team that sees no point in the draft-and-development model, having mortgaged its entire future through the end of the (first?) Biden Administration for a return trip to the Super Bowl. It’s not a bad bet, given Sean McVay’s command of his offense, his youthful energy and eye on what’s coming next in the NFL.
Seattle sneaks in at No. 2, right behind the Rams, by virtue of having Russell Wilson. This is what you’d call scared analyst afraid of picking the 49ers to finish second. This sort of thing happens like the elemental nature of flowing water. It’s organic, despite the fact that there isn’t really much evidence to explain why. Seattle didn’t really get all that much better on defense this offseason, though locking up Jamal Adams to an extension is helpful in the short term. Wilson, just a few months ago, was interested in a trade. And yet, poof. That’s the measure of a good quarterback, when your faith in them is such that you’ll just plug them into second place in a great division.
The battle between second and third here was difficult, and perhaps I’m still running on fumes after Trey Lance’s debut. While Lance was uneven in both of his first two preseason starts, his ceiling is miles higher than any quarterback in this class not named Trevor Lawrence (and he’s not running the 49ers’ actual offense in those games). If Shanahan has a way to work Lance in situationally this season, especially early, this offense is going to be almost impossible to stop. After suffering a slew of injuries last year, the rest of the NFL world seems to have fallen asleep on San Francisco, but its potential to come out and slug with the rest of the NFC West punch for punch is great. The 49ers also have a fairly desirable schedule.
The Cardinals fall to the basement here, failing to do enough to separate themselves amid the toughest division in football. Adding J.J. Watt and A.J. Green is fine, but Arizona needed some serious ammunition this offseason. Instead, the Cardinals swap Larry Fitzgerald for Green, who had the lowest average separation of any receiver in the NFL last year. Watt (hopefully) paired with Chandler Jones is enticing, but are there the component pieces to make it work as a consistently destructive pass-rushing machine? This all may seem like I’m being hard on the Cardinals, but they could easily be 10–7 or 11–6 in another division (cough, NFC East).
More from Conor Orr:
• How Derrick Henry Handles a Throwback Workload
• Why Installing the NFL’s Trendiest Offense Is Harder Than You'd Think
• An Early Look at the 2022 NFL Quarterback Carousel
• Austin Bills? NFL Owners Are Running Out of Threats
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