Last week saw the start of the college football season; this week, the NFL makes its entry onto the US sporting scene. As has been customary in these parts, I try to do a bunch of predictions before things get underway for real just to demonstrate the wisdom in the adage:
- Prediction is very difficult – – particularly when it involves the future.
But I am not one who is ashamed of being wrong, so I shall continue to “give it a go” again in 2021. In the process of forecasting the future, it is inevitable that I will be wrong about many team performances. When I underestimate the success of a team, there are two things you must keep in mind:
- I do not hate that team, its coach, its fans and/or the city it represents.
- I do not owe that team, its coach, its fans and/or the city it represents an apology because all that took place is that I made an error which I will readily acknowledge after it happens.
I begin these predictive pieces with my list of eight NFL Coaches on a Hot Seat. I do not expect all of them to be canned at the end of the year, but I do think all will come in for some pointed critiques along the way in 2021. I will present them here in alphabetical order:
- David Cully (Texans): Yes, I know this will be his first season in Houston and I also know that the Texans are going to be awful this year through no fault of Coach Cully. Nevertheless, I doubt that he will be a fan favorite there and while he will likely survive into the 2022 season, his seat starts out warm and will only increase in temperature as the season progresses.
- Vic Fangio (Broncos): The Broncos are 12-20 over the past two seasons with Fangio in charge. I think a winning record and serious contention for a playoff spot – if not the playoffs themselves – will be necessary for him to be the coach in Denver in 2022.
- Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals): The Cards are 13-18-1 over the past two seasons with Kingsbury in charge. His offense led by Kyler Murray has been splashy and exciting – – at times. However, overall success has not happened. I think he will need a playoff appearance to survive into 2022.
- Matt LeFleur (Packers): I put him here not because of his record in Green Bay; it is a good one. His problem is Aaron Rodgers and Rodgers’ “happiness” with the team. If that relationship becomes strained – or goes in the dumper entirely – LeFleur might find his job in jeopardy.
- Mike McCarthy (Cowboys): The Cowboys were 6-10 last year – McCarthy’s first year in Dallas. The team is highly regarded this year; they have plenty of offensive weapons – enough to win shoot-out games. Can McCarthy and his staff piece together enough defense to be a playoff team? I think that is what Jerry Jones expects…
- Matt Nagy (Bears): In his first season in Chicago, he led the Bears to a 12-4 record and the NFC North title. In the next two seasons, the Bears have been 8-8. Nagy’s seat is not nearly as hot as some others on this list – – unless things come apart at the seams and the Bears finish at something like 6-11.
- Zac Taylor (Bengals): I put him here even though I am confident he will be the coach in Cincy next year. The basis for his position here is that reports lead me to conclude that expectations for the Bengals are sky-high with the return of Joe Burrow and the maturing of the young roster – – notwithstanding a Bengals’ record of 6-25-1 over the past 2 seasons. But the Bengals play in a very difficult division and are not going to meet sky-high expectations. The reason Taylor will be back in Cincy in 2022 is that he has time and money left on his contract there and the Bengals notoriously do not like to pay coaches not to coach.
- Mike Zimmer (Vikings): He has been the Vikes’ head coach for 7 seasons now; he has been in the playoffs 3 times; his coaching record in Minnesota is 64-47-1. I put him here because there is no positive trend to his teams’ performances, and it may be that fans and ownership in Minnesota may want to “go in a different direction.
Before getting into specifics about the upcoming 2021 season, let me present an observation from Bob Molinaro in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot from several months ago:
“Looking back: The next NFL schedule won’t have more than three exhibition games per team. It’s incredible that before the league moved to 16 games in 1978, teams played six preseason dates. Six!”
Given the injury-phobia that is clearly exhibited by many teams/coaches around the league, try to imagine who would be on the field in six Exhibition Games in 2021. But Molinaro is absolutely correct; there used to be 6 of those meaningless games prior to every season. When – not if but when – the NFL and the NFLPA come to an agreement on how much more of a percentage of revenue needs to go to players to accept an 18th regular season game with 2 Bye Weeks in the regular season schedule for each team, I hope they cut the Exhibition Game schedule to one or two games at the most.
NFL players have an adage:
- Father Time has never missed a tackle.
Before anyone leaps to inform me that Tom Brady is 44 years old and is still “going strong”, that adage is something fans and coaches need to keep in mind. So, let me list here six players who just might feel Father Time’s presence as the season wears on. Please note, all the players I have here are ones who have had laudatory careers; they are ones who I think might be coming close to entering the “next phase” of their lives:
- Calais Campbell: He is 35 years old and that is pushing it for a defensive lineman and pass rusher.
- Ezekiel Elliott: He is not old – 26 years old to be specific. However, he has had almost 1700 touches in his career to date; that is a lot of pounding on his body.
- Derrick Henry: He is not old – 27 years old to be specific. However, he has led the NFL in rushing attempts for each of the past two seasons carrying the ball a total of 681 times in those two seasons; that is a lot of pounding on his body too.
- AJ Green: He is 33 years old and entering his 10th NFL season. He may have lost a step because in 2020 he caught 47 passes for 523 yards in 16 games. Just two seasons ago in 2019, he caught 46 passes for 694 yards in only 9 games.
- Ben Roethlisberger: He is entering his 18th NFL season at age 39. He appeared in 15 games last year, but his yards-per-completion were the lowest of his career by a significant margin save for an injury season in 2019.
- Andrew Whitworth: He will be 40 years old in early December when he and the Rams hope to be playing meaningful games. Go to Google Images and check out a recent photo of Whitworth and you will understand why the term “gray-beard” is appropriate…
Before I leave the “Father Time” portion of this piece entirely, here is another item I found in a column by Bob Molinaro:
“Tidbit: Tom Brady is only the second quarterback to start an NFL conference championship game in three decades. The other: Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts.”
Now it is time for my predictions team-by-team in the 8 NFL Divisions. I shall start in the AFC East:
- Bills: I think they win this division handily with a 13-4 record. As far as I can see, the only weakness I see is a mediocre running game. Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs by themselves make for a potent pass offense; adding Emmanuel Sanders to the roster makes it even better. The Bills’ defense played well in the final months of last season and should be strong again this year. One cautionary note I would point out is that the Bills have an outspoken and hard-over contingent of ant-vax players. Should that cause game difficulties, that problem might become a serious locker room issue.
- Patriots: I think the Pats finish second in this division at 10-7. I am not ready to anoint Mac Jones as a star QB at the NFL level – and truth be told he does not have an outstanding set of pass-catchers with him – but I do believe that he can operate in the Josh McDaniel offensive milieu.
- Dolphins: I think the Fins come third here with a 9-8 record. I know that others are much higher on the team than I am. I worry about their QB situation. The proclamation has been that Tua is their guy; then there have been persistent rumors that the team is talking with the Texans about trading for Deshaun Watson – should he ever be allowed on an NFL field again. Those two things just do not go together, and I think the Dolphins will underperform the high expectations many folks have for this team in 2021.
[Aside: Personally, I think Tua is not the answer at QB for an NFL team that aspires to serious playoff participation. He just does not give me confidence when he drops back to pass.]
- Jets: I think the Jets will finish last in the division at 3-14. The team has had a bunch of training camp injuries and the effect of those injuries on a thin roster to begin with will prevent the Jets from showing much improvement. Zach Wilson shows a lot of promise, and many folks think he will be a star in the NFL for a decade or so. Even if that is completely correct, it is not going to matter much in 2021; he will see lots of pressure behind an offensive line that was damaged by an injury to Mekhi Becton.
Moving on to the AFC North – this is going to be a very strong division in 2021 and the strength of the division opponents could make some of the strong teams appear to be less successful:
- Ravens: I like the Ravens to win this division at 12-5. The loss of RB, JK Dobbins for the season is a challenge for the Ravens’ offense, but I still think the rest of the roster is strong. Lamar Jackson took a half-step back last year; I think he takes a full step ahead this year. The Ravens are a balanced team being strong on offense, defense and special teams.
- Browns: I like the Browns to finish second in the division on a tiebreaker; the Browns will also go 12-5. The schedule-maker has an interesting angle for the Browns and Ravens in late November and early December. The Browns play at Baltimore, then get a BYE Week, then host Baltimore. Over the same three weeks, the Ravens host the Browns, play at the Steelers and then at the Browns. The Browns’ defense should be improved with the return of Greedy Williams to the defensive backfield. The Browns also acquired Jadeveon Clowney; that may or may not be a blessing. What the Browns need most is for that defensive unit to improve from last year; the offense was fine, but the defense was just okay. The RB tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is as good as any in the league.
- Steelers: I think the Steelers go 9-8. That prediction is based on the soundness of Ben Roethlisberger’s arm/elbow. I said above that he may be on the precipice of his career but if his arm is healthy enough to make defenses worry about a pass more than 8 or 9 yards downfield, the Steelers can be a tough out because of the Steelers’ defense. However, if Roethlisberger is ineffective or injured again and the Steelers have to turn to Mason Rudolph and/or Dwayne Haskins, my prediction of a 9-8 record should be wildly optimistic. Remember, the Steelers started last year with an 11-0 record and finished at 12-4 when it became obvious in December that they could not stretch the field. The Steelers running game should be better with the addition of first round pick, Najee Harris.
- Bengals: I think the Bengals finish at 5-12 which shows improvement but not excellence. The schedule-maker was not kind to the Bengals back-loading the team schedule with a difficult final six weeks. Over that stretch the Bengals host the Chargers, host the Niners, at the Broncos, host the Ravens, host the Chiefs, at the Browns.
Next up is the AFC South. There are two good teams in this division and two pretty miserable teams too:
- Titans: I like the Titans to win the division at 11-6. The Titans have a tough stretch on the schedule in October/November. In that time, the Titans play home against the Bills, home against the Chiefs, at the Colts, at the Rams, home against the Saints. Ryan Tannehill can now seek out Julio Jones AND AJ Brown on pass plays; presumably, that will offset the free-agency losses of Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis. If the Titans improve their passing game, it will take some of the load – and the wear and tear – off Derrick Henry.
- Colts: I think the Colts finish second here at 9-8. When the Colts acquired Carson Wentz to replace the retired Philip Rivers, I thought the Colts might take over this division but Wentz’ foot injury and his COVID quarantine make me wonder about his availability over a 17-game schedule. The Colts’ defense is good; the team needs to be able to score points and to do that they need their QB to be ready and able. The early part of the 2021 season could be “make or break” for the Colts. Here are the first 5 weeks: host Seahawks, host Rams, at Titans, at Dolphins, at Ravens. Ouch!
- Jags: I think the Jags finish third in the division at 3-14. Don’t sneer, that is three times as many games as the Jags won in 2020. I think Trevor Lawrence will play well – so long as he can stay uninjured behind a sub-standard offensive line; he may need to run for his life to stay healthy. I do not expect miracles from Urban Meyer, but I also did not anticipate the screw-ups that have happened already under his regime – – the Tim Tebow distraction and the outrageous hiring of the strength coach just to name a couple. The day after Christmas, NFL fans in NYC will get the scheduling equivalent of a lump of coal in their stockings. On the 26th of December, the Jags travel to NYC to play the Jets. At stake will likely be draft position for next April.
- Texans: I think the Texans will finish dead last in the division – and in the NFL – with a record of 2-15. I think the Texans will split with the Jags in divisional games and will win a home game against the Jets in last November. That prediction is based on my guess that Deshaun Watson never sees the field in 2021 as his criminal and civil actions related to sexual assault wend their way through the US legal system. Without Watson, the Texans could challenge the Jags and/or Lions for the worst offense in the league. The defensive unit is nothing to write home about either…
[Aside: The legal issues surrounding Deshaun Watson are not of the Texans’ doing but the new regime there did not cover itself in glory during the offseason. This is a team that needs to overcome the giving away of DeAndre Hopkins for a bag of donut holes and the defection of JJ Watt. So, there is how the new guys approached their roster rebuild. They traded to acquire Shaq Lawson from the Dolphins in exchange for linebacker Bernardrick McKinney. They revamped Lawson’s contract converting salary to signing bonus to the tune of $7M. That was in the Spring; in the past two weeks, they sent Lawson off to the Jets in exchange for a 6th round pick next year. Is that how you rebuild a devastated roster? The Texans’ Front Office reminds me of those glorious days when Danny Boy Snyder was a hands-on owner and he had Vinny Cerrato as his “consigliere”…]
Finally for the AFC, here is the AFC West:
- Chiefs: I think the Chiefs win this division comfortably at 14-3. The schedule starts out rough for the Chiefs. For the first 7 weeks they host the Browns, at the Ravens, host the Chargers, at the Eagles, host the Bills, at the Football Team, at the Titans. I think the Chiefs will be 5-2 at that part of the season and then assert themselves in the mid-season and down the stretch. The Chiefs are potent on offense because they are fast; they have a great QB and TE and they can run the football. The offensive line is revamped with acquisitions via trade and free agency plus the return of a lineman who opted out of the 2020 season.
- Chargers: I think the Chargers will finish second here with a record of 10-7. Justin Herbert is for real; it will be fun to see him go against Patrick Mahomes twice a year for the foreseeable future. Free safety, Derwin James, was an All-Pro first team selection in his rookie year in 2018; he played 5 games in 2019 and missed all of the 2020 season. If he is healthy, the Chargers’ defense just gets better.
- Raiders: I see the Raiders finishing in third place here with a 7-10 record. There is just too much drama associated with this team and with the coach and with the GM and with the owner. The final 7 games on their schedule are not easy. They play at the Cowboys, host the Football Team, at the Chiefs, at the Browns, host the Broncos, at the Colts host the Chargers to end the season.
- Broncos: I think the Broncos finish last in the division with a 5-12 record. That is going to get their coach fired. In their continuing search for a quality starting QB – something they have been doing ever since Peyton Manning retired in 2015 – the Broncos acquired Teddy Bridgewater. That is an improvement over the days when they were trotting folks like Paxton Lynch and/or Brock Osweiler out onto the field. However, Teddy Bridgewater is not a franchise QB now or ever.
[Aside: I ran across this stat somewhere but did not note where I got it. According to whomever, the Broncos’ Teddy Bridgewater will be the 11th starting QB they have used since Manning’s retirement. I think that is correctly referred to as a revolving door situation.]
So, here are the AFC playoff teams:
- Chiefs – #1 seed, BYE week in the playoffs, home field in the playoffs
- Bills – #2 seed
- Ravens – #3 seed
- Titans – #4 seed
- Browns – first wildcard
- Chargers – second wildcard
- Patriots – final wildcard
And now over the NFC, where I will begin in with the NFC West. Top to bottom, this is the best division in the NFL; the team that finishes last here would likely win the NFC East.
- Seahawks: I think they will win the division with a 13-4 record. The schedule-maker was kind to the Seahawks in December/January giving Seattle games against the Texans, Bears and Lions in the last five weeks. There was far too much hyperbole and drama in the offseason abut Russell Wilson demanding to be traded. That did not happen; I seriously doubt it was ever close to happening; he is back with the Seahawks and will lead them to the playoffs.
- Niners: I think they finish second in the division at 10-7. They were injury-riddled in 2020 and the “return” of players like Nick Bosa and Dee Ford should improve the defense significantly. Deebo Samuel only played 7 games for the Niners last year and his return will be a plus for the offense. Jimmy Garoppolo and/or Trey Lance should be good enough to provide a winning season for the team.
- Rams: I think the Rams finish third in the division with a 10-7 record losing out on a tiebreaker to the Niners. Matthew Stafford is a significant upgrade for the Rams at QB, but the team lost its defensive coordinator to a head coaching offer in the offseason.
- Cardinals: I think the Cardinals finish last in this division with a 9-8 record. The Cardinals are a good team, but they are scheduled into the toughest division in the league. As I mentioned above, I think this season will be one where people are looking for the Cards’ offense to take a big step forward with Kyler Murray at the controls.
Moving along to the NFC South:
- Bucs: I think the Bucs will win this division with a 14-3 record. Somehow, the Bucs managed to win the Super Bowl last year and also to “keep the band together”. In fact, the Buds’ defense may be even better this year because they will get Vita Vey back from the injured list to play nose tackle.
- Saints: I think the Saints will take a stop back this year with the retirement of Drew Brees but there seems to be enough residual talent for the team to have a winning season at 10-7. Jameis Winston won the starting job in New Orleans; he has weapons around him, and he has Sean Payton as the offensive guru there. This is a time for Winston to show that he can lead a team efficiently and minimize his abundant turnovers.
- Panthers: I see the Panthers climbing out of the division basement to finish third with a record of 6-11. Matt Ruhle has had a couple of years to acquire “his guys” on the roster and I think that will start to pay off this year. I am not nearly as sour on Sam Darnold as many other commentators seem to be; I think he was saddled with a mediocre roster and a goofy coaching staff in NYC. The end of the schedule for the Panthers is not kind and gentle. In their last 4 games they get a trip to play the Bills, home against the Bucs, away at the Saints and away at the Bucs. Ouch!
- Falcons: I think the Falcons finish last here with a 5-12 record. I know Julio Jones is “old” for a WR and that he had a burdensome contract but losing him from the offense will not help the Falcons’ cause at all. I do have a cautionary sense here, however. Last year, the Falcons were 4-12 but their point differential for the entire season was only minus-18 points. There were 8-8 teams with comparable or worse point differentials. If there is going to be a surprise team in the NFC, it just might be the Falcons.
Moving onto the NFC North:
- Packers: I like the Packers to win the division with a 13-4 record. The Packers have won 13 games in each of the last two years; why not keep going on that sort of streak? There was far too much offseason drama surrounding the team, its front office and Aaron Rodgers, but I think Rodgers can and will put that aside and lead the team to the division title. An important game on the schedule is November 14 when the Seahawks come to Green Bay to play the Packers. I think that game will have specific playoff tie-breaker significance.
- Vikes: I think the Vikes will finish a distant second in this division at 8-9. From Halloween through the end of November, the Vikes’ schedule is difficult. They are home against the Cowboys, at the Ravens, at the Chargers, home against the Packers and at the Niners.
- Bears: I think the Bears will finish third in the division at 6-11. Then, the Bears will be looking for a new head coach in the offseason. Maybe Justin Fields is their QB of the future, but Andy Dalton is their QB of the present and with what is around Dalton that is a ticket to mediocrity.
- Lions: I see the Lions trailing everyone in the division – – and in the NFC – – finishing with a 3-14 record. When I look at the Lions’ roster, I find myself not looking for stars at various position; I am looking for people who I think are average players at their position. Dan Campbell got a 6-year contract to sign on with the Lions; he may need that long – if he survives that long – to purge this roster and build a new one from scratch.
And the final division to consider is the NFC East. I think there are some potentially good teams here, but none are outstanding. All four teams have serious question marks going into the season; my selection as to the order of finish represents the teams with the fewest significant question marks attached to it.
- Football Team: I like the Football Team to win the division with a 10-7 record. Ron Rivera has completely revamped the roster with young players who are fast and who seem to play intelligently. That was never the case for this team more than 2 years ago. The question mark here is the quarterback. Is Ryan Fitzpatrick good enough at age 38 to play an entire season under center effectively? He need not be a star; he needs only to be steady and effective. I think he can get it done. The Washington defense will keep them in almost any game; this is a defensive unit that could be one of the four or five best in the league this year.
- Cowboys: I think they finish second here with a 9-8 record. There are 2 question marks attached to the Cowboys. Is Dak Prescott ready to resume his level of competency after a major ankle injury last year and a mysterious sore shoulder that kept him out of all the Exhibition Games? Is the Cowboys’ defense going to be able to keep opponents out of the end zone this year? The team has a new defensive coordinator in Dan Quinn, and he has a good track record as a defensive coach…
[Aside: I have NO inside information here, but I do have a hunch. I think the Cowboys had a plan all along not to play Dak Prescott in any Exhibition Games and that Prescott went along with that plan. Then, to keep reporters from harping on his “recovery status” they manufactured the “shoulder injury” as a distraction. I will be watching for his first 50-yard pass attempt to Cee Dee Lamb on Thursday night. As I said, just a hunch…]
- Giants: I think the Giants finish third here with a 7-10 record. The question marks surrounding this team involve the recovery status of Saquon Barkley, the effectiveness of the offensive line and whether Daniel Jones takes another positive step in terms of his development as a QB. There were too many stories regarding fights among the Giants’ players at training camp. This situation just could blow into smithereens.
- Eagles: I think the Eagles will trail the field here and finish at 5-12. There are plenty of question marks here including who their QB is, the game management skills of their new head coach, the corps of wide receivers and the corps of linebackers. I am not a “Jalen Hurts-hater”, but I am not sold on his ability to be a #1 QB in the NFL. Joe Flacco’s days as the QB of a contending NFL team are in the past. Gardner Minshew is Jalen Hurts with a better arm and worse legs.
So, here is my projected NFC playoff structure:
- Bucs – #1 seed, BYE Week in the playoffs, home field in the playoffs
- Seahawks/Packers – #2 seed, goes to the winner of the Nov 14 game
- Seahawks/Packers – #3 seed, goes to the loser of the Nov 14 game
- Football Team – #4 seed
- Saints – first wildcard
- Niners – second wildcard
- Rams – final wildcard
Finally, since I have foretold the outcome of the upcoming NFL season, I feel like refreshing myself with an adult beverage. And that feeling leads me to close here with an observation by the legendary dipsomaniac, W. C. Fields:
“My illness is due to my doctor’s insistence that I drink milk, a whitish fluid they force down helpless babies.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………