Making predictions on outcomes of plays, games, or seasons is one of the most entertaining forms of discussion that sports fans can have. It's even more fun when the predictions you make come true, which happened to an extent for me when I wrote the same preseason predictions that I am about to do now. I certainly wasn't completely correct with my 2020 picks, but I'm hoping 2021's projections will be better.
For those who weren't keeping up with the engaging dialogue of the Bucket Squad Sports Reports' finest (me) last year, I will be making my initial predictions for how the 2021 NFL regular season will shake out. I will provide the final standings of each of the eight divisions, as well as identify which seven teams from each conference will make the cut for the postseason. Every four weeks of the season, I will update my predictions based on the performances of every team and compare how my picks change from each quarter (roughly speaking, now that there are 18 weeks) of the NFL season.
Keep reading if you want to see where your team will finish within their division and whether or not you'll be rooting for them into mid-January of 2022.
x - clinch division
y - clinch wildcard
1. Buffalo Bills - x
2. New England Patriots - y
3. Miami Dolphins
4. New York Jets
I think the Bills have to be the clear favorite to win the AFC East this season. Josh Allen could potentially be a top 3 quarterback in the league, and Buffalo has a lot of talent to help him out on offense and a respectable defense on the other side of the ball. Allen progressed significantly between his second and third year, and he should make another step forward in 2021. Even with a new head coach and a promising, young quarterback, the Jets are still a very safe bet to finish last in the division. I don't see them pulling off too many more wins from a season ago, and they'd need a rather large increase to the win column to compete with the rest of the AFC East.
That leaves us with Miami and New England, and I think the difference will rely upon which team gets better and more consistent quarterback play. The Dolphins, who finished ahead of the Patriots last season, will hope for Tua Tagovailoa to take a leap forward in 2021 from a somewhat rough rookie season a year ago. The Patriots will likely start with Cam Newton at the helm, but rookie Mac Jones has looked good in preseason and is breathing down Cam's neck should he start slow out of the gates. I think the smartest move is to side with New England, who did more to bolster their roster than Miami, in my opinion, and will also be getting a few key guys back on defense who opted out of the 2020 season. Even after what happened to the Pats last year, it's hard to bet against Bill Belichick.
1. Kansas City Chiefs - x
2. Los Angeles Chargers
3. Las Vegas Raiders
4. Denver Broncos
The Chiefs are the obvious favorites in this division, and will be for the next decade as long as Patrick Mahomes stays healthy. However, the next three teams are difficult to sort in my estimation. I absolutely love Justin Herbert and the Chargers. Herbert had an incredible rookie year and put his team in position to win just about every game he played. Unfortunately, they found themselves on the losing end of a lot of those games. I watched pretty much all those games and the Chargers looked like they could potentially be a force to be reckoned with in a year or two. And I think they will be just that in 2021. I think LA will learn from their blown leads in 2020, against some really good teams by the way, and figure out how to win some games in 2021 with a chance to push for a wildcard spot.
The tough part about predicting this division is I think every team outside of Kansas City is pretty even. The Raiders are solid and added some pieces in the offseason to be even better than last season, where their postseason hopes lasted almost until the very end of the regular season. They would be a safe pick to finish ahead of the Broncos, who are probably going to be starting the newly acquired Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback in week 1. Denver has the edge over the Raiders on defense, but I just think Las Vegas will be better overall, as they don't have to make too much of a jump from last season to find success in 2021. I will say that I wouldn't be surprised by any order of the last three teams in the AFC West at the season's end.
1. Baltimore Ravens - x
2. Cleveland Browns - y
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Cincinnati Bengals
I honestly really wanted to pick the Browns to win this division, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. They maintained their entire offense from a season ago and are getting O'Dell Beckham, Jr. back as well as adding Jadeveon Clowney to pair opposite Myles Garrett at defensive end. I think Cleveland will find their way into the playoffs behind Baker Mayfield again in 2021, but I think it will be from a wildcard spot rather than a division title. I just think Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are too hard to bet against with their solid run game and stout defense. Especially if Lamar's arm can continue to improve.
The Steelers had a perfect first half of the 2020 season and were the last team to lose a game in the regular season. However, that success dropped off rapidly and they ended their season with back-to-back routs from Cleveland. While I do think Pittsburgh will bounce back and contend for the division, I don't trust Big Ben and the rest of the offense enough to put them above the Ravens or Browns. As for the Bengals, I do really like Joe Burrow and think Cincinnati's offense can be pretty good if they get consistent O-line play. They have a lot of young weapons and they made moves to bolster the offensive line in the offseason. However, I don't think 2021 is the year they will finish ahead of last in the AFC North.
1. Indianapolis Colts - x
2. Tennessee Titans - y
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Houston Texans
The AFC South might have the biggest 50-50 toss up as to who will win the division, as I think the Titans and Colts are nearly equal overall. The Titans may have the edge on offense just because of their big three: Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and the newly added Julio Jones. But the Indy has a very respectable offense of their own with a great offensive line, several good running backs, and a combination of speed, size, and experience at receiver. I'd definitely give the defensive edge to the Colts, but their success will likely come down to quarterback play. It appears as if Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson will only miss a game or two at most, but if Wentz can return to his former MVP form, he can definitely lead the Colts to a division title. My decision may be a little biased, but I say Indianapolis edges out Tennessee by no more than a game and takes the division crown back in 2021.
The Jaguars will be led by a new head coach (Urban Meyer) and quarterback (Trevor Lawrence), and I think they'll find a few more wins with the added offensive weapons from a year ago. While they likely won't be in the race for the playoffs, I do think they'll be better than the Texans, who probably won't have Deshaun Watson due to off-the-field issues. I think wins will be few and far between in Houston.
1. Washington Football Team - x
2. Dallas Cowboys
3. New York Giants
4. Philadelphia Eagles
Outside of maybe the NFC West, which will be coming up next, this division has to be the hardest to predict. All of these teams were so bad last year that the newly and generically named Washington Football Team won the division and hosted a home playoff game with a losing record. However, that same team looked legitimately good down the stretch, and competed pretty well with Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs with a backup quarterback. Now, with the veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick under center and a stout defense, I like Washington to repeat as division champs and finish above .500 on the season.
As for the rest of the teams, it's hard to say what they'll be like in 2021. The Cowboys have a solid offense and are getting Dak Prescott, but it's basically impossible to trust them to find success at this point after years of mediocrity. The Giants added a couple nice weapons on offense and made some improvements to the defense, but I don't have a lot of confidence in Daniel Jones yet, even with the return of Saquon Barkley to assist out of the backfield. And then there's the Eagles, who were pathetic last season and will be starting a young quarterback who only played a handful of games in 2020. Maybe DeVonta Smith will make a big impact and the presence of Joe Flacco will help Jalen Hurts take a leap at QB, but I don't see a ton of optimism in Philly right now. Ultimately, I think the safe assumption is that these three teams finish in the order in which I mentioned them, but honestly, who really cares?
1. Los Angeles Rams - x
2. Seattle Seahawks - y
3. Arizona Cardinals - y
4. San Francisco 49ers
Like I just mentioned, the NFC West is the toughest division for me to predict, simply because it is the toughest division. I mean, I can see each of the four teams winning the division crown, and I wouldn't be surprised if three teams make it to the postseason out of the NFC West. Last season's champs, the Rams, got even better in the offseason in my opinion by acquiring Matthew Stafford, who will get a chance to actually win with a sharp offensive minded coach and fearsome defense. The Seahawks maintained most of their roster from 2020, including star QB Russell Wilson, and can beat you with a run and gun style or a slow-paced, smash mouth approach. Kyler Murray could be a mix of Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen for the Cardinals, with DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, and Christian Kirk at wide out, J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones rushing off the edges, and Budda Baker patrolling the secondary. The quarterback situation is a little rocky in San Francisco, but the Niners can slash the defense on the ground and shut down anyone they go up against.
It's really just a shot in the dark for this division, and it was almost impossible for me to decide how I was going to rank these teams. In fact, I'm writing this before I've even ranked them hoping that my thoughts would help me sort out how I think the division will play out. My gut is saying that Stafford is going to make the Rams even better this year and that they will successfully defend their division title in 2021. I wanted to put Arizona at 2, but I think Russell Wilson's experience in Seattle will help propel the Seahawks past the Cards. And maybe it's just recency bias from San Francisco's down year in their injury riddled 2021, but I think they have the worst quarterback and offense in the division, making it tougher for them to win as many games as the other three.
I will go out on a limb and say that three teams in the NFC West make the playoffs, as the only other legit wildcard contenders in other divisions I see are Minnesota and New Orleans (more on them later). This is essentially hedging my bets on the NFC playoff teams, as at least two will surely come from this division. Like I said, no final order of these four teams will surprise me.
1. Green Bay Packers - x
2. Minnesota Vikings
3. Chicago Bears
4. Detroit Lions
I could be wrong, but I found this to be the easiest division to list from top to bottom based on a combination of franchise history, recent performances, and roster adjustments made in the offseason. The Packers have to be the clear cut favorite with Aaron Rodgers making what could be his farewell tour in Green Bay, though he has stated he doesn't want it to be. Some people think his holdout will have caused riffs in the locker room, but do you think there's any player on that team who was hoping Rodgers would leave? Or that won't reconcile their feelings once Rodgers steps out on the field and leads some game winning drives early in the season? I don't think so. Green Bay will win the division and that team will be hungry to find redemption in the postseason and reach the Super Bowl this time around.
The Vikings are a solid team across the board, but last season, it felt like Kirk Cousins was getting sacked two seconds after the ball was snapped every other play. When he had time to throw, however, the trio of Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, and Dalvin Cook out of the backfield were dominant. That may be arguably the best three-man offensive skill player grouping in the league, aside from maybe the three with the Titans. With a revamped secondary and added pieces on all layers of the defense, I think Minnesota will have a good team and push for a wildcard spot.
The Bears have questions at quarterback, but a lot of people in Chicago seem to like Justin Fields. All Chicago has needed for several years has been an offense, as their defense is typically very good when they aren't forced to be on the field all game following successive three-and-outs. They did make the postseason last year, somehow, but I don't know if they'll be able to do that again in 2021. Finally, the Lions are the Lions. Now, they have a certified character as a head coach now in Dan Campbell and will be changing things up at quarterback with Jared Goff (who I think is a downgrade from Matthew Stafford, by the way). But the smart play, I think, is to place them as the fourth place team in the NFC North, per usual.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - x
2. New Orleans Saints - y
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Atlanta Falcons
Both the Buccaneers and the Saints made minimal moves in the offseason, but New Orleans' major loss is that of longtime starting quarterback Drew Brees, who retired after the conclusion of the season. I think both teams will be contenders again in 2021, but the Bucs have the clear upper hand. Pretty much everyone from last year's Super Bowl team is returning, and Tom Brady has basically an all-pro cast surrounding him again this year. Tampa Bay will almost undoubtedly win the division, and I think Jameis Winston will perform well enough in Sean Payton's offense to go along with a fortuitous defense and win their fair share of games, breaking into the postseason again in 2021.
The Panthers and Falcons seem pretty similar to me, but I have to take Carolina to beat out Atlanta given the fact that Matt Rhule will be in his second year now and I think Sam Darnold will have decent success in his offense. Furthermore, Carolina's defense has some young talent that should mature this season and improve from their decent defensive ranking in 2020. While I still think Matt Ryan can sling the ball regardless of who he's throwing to, I don't think there are enough strong playmakers on Atlanta's offense or defense for them to find much success this season.
So there we have it, the final standings of every division in the NFL for 2021, as well as the 14 playoff teams. To recap, here are the seven teams in each conference that I am picking to make the postseason, in no particular order.
1. Buffalo Bills
2. New England Patriots
3. Kansas City Chiefs
4. Baltimore Ravens
5. Cleveland Browns
6. Indianapolis Colts
7. Tennessee Titans
1. Washington Football Team
2. Los Angeles Rams
3. Seattle Seahawks
4. Arizona Cardinals
5. Green Bay Packers
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
7. New Orleans Saints
Remember, I'll be making changes to this list every 4 weeks of the NFL season, and at the end of the year, I'll go back and compare the actual results to these initial predictions to see how I performed.
For now, we'll continue counting down the days til kickoff.
Written by Nick Swatson
Expert Nick Swatson discusses all the news, predictions, and outcomes surrounding the NFL.