The Complete 2021 NFL Season Preview

By Joe Gendelman   August 8, 2021 

The Complete 2021 NFL Season Preview

Football fans rejoice! The 2021 NFL season is officially underway with all 32 teams opening training camp and preseason games already happening. With NFL odds already having been released for the season openers of Week 1, here is our preview of the entire league, conference by conference, division by division. Get the scoop on your favorite team, your rivals, and check out the NFL futures market to see how your squad stacks up.

NFC North 

The obvious biggest issue in the division throughout the offseason has been the status of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers made his unhappiness in Green Bay known and was reportedly on the verge of being traded to Denver near the draft. That move obviously would’ve opened things up in what should be a competitive division race – without Rodgers Green Bay would likely not be favored to win the division by five games as they did a season ago. 

Rodgers agreeing to return once again puts Green Bay in the driver’s seat for the division title, but all three teams underneath them all made improvements this season. Here’s a look at the NFC North prior to the season. 

July 30, 2021; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) and quarterback Kurt Benkert (7) participate in training camp Friday, July 30, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. Dan Powers-USA TODAY NETWORK

Green Bay Packers: Rodgers and the Packers have ultimately worked through their differences, for now. The team also brought back one of Rodgers’ favorite targets, Randall Cobb, this offseason. Rodgers was extremely honest – and detailed – in sharing what his frustrations were with the organization over the years. But with the issues behind them as the season approaches, the Packers have no reason to expect a slow-down in Rodgers’ skills or the production of the offense. Davante Adams is still around as one of the best route runners and receivers in the league.

Green Bay was one of the most balanced teams in the league last season, ranking fifth in total offense and eighth in total defense. The Packers had the third-best point-differential in the NFL this season. They’ll also benefit by playing in a division where two teams will be working with new starting quarterbacks this season and a third, the Vikings, starts in the inconsistent Kirk Cousins. 

Beyond Rodgers, the biggest question for Green Bay will be whether or not they can win breakthrough in the playoffs. Last season, they had a chance to tie the NFC Championship game late on a fourth and goal. Green Bay’s coaching staff elected to kick a field goal to cut the deficit to five points, but their defense couldn’t get the ball back and Tampa Bay ran out the clock. At this point in Rodgers’ career, anything short of a Super Bowl appearance will probably be considered a disappointing season.

Chicago Bears: The Bears snuck into the playoffs last season with an 8-8 record, thanks in large part to a strong defense that overcame inconsistency at the quarterback position. Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky yo-yoed back and forth as the starter, with Trubisky starting and ending the season in that role after Foles briefly took over in the middle of the season. 

The Bears had a bit of draft luck with highly touted prospect Justin Fields falling to them in the first round, but for now, Fields isn’t expected to start immediately. The Bears brought in another game managing veteran in Andy Dalton to be the stopgap starter. Dalton wasn’t particularly effective for Dallas last season after he took over for an injured Dak Prescott, though. Foles is also still on the roster, listed third on the depth chart. 

A team that hopes to make another playoff run might be hesitant to turn over the keys to a rookie, but Fields undoubtedly offers the most upside of any quarterback on the roster and he should win the job at some point this season.

The Bears are also hoping their pass rush can improve. With Khali Mack and newly acquired Jeremiah Attaochu, expect Chicago to get a lot more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. 

Minnesota Vikings: Cousins takes a lot of heat for Minnesota’s issues last season, but it was actually their backslide on defense that was most responsible for the Vikings missing the playoffs. Minnesota invested a lot on defense in the offseason, hoping that if they can stop teams more consistently, the offensive inconsistencies will be less notable. 

In particular, the Vikings made big upgrades in the secondary around star safety Harrison Smith. New corners Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, and Bashaud Breeland and safety Xavier Woods should result in a big improvement in stopping opposing passing games, especially in a division in which they’ll have to face Rodgers and Adams twice in the regular season. Newly signed Sheldon Richardson should also improve the pass rush.

Offensively, the team has lost weapons in the passing game over the past two offseasons, but Cousins is still capable of big games. Star running back Dalvin Cook should help them control time of possession. 

The Vikings actually scored more points than three of six playoff teams last season, so if they get even marginally better on defense, they should be a threat to make the postseason.

Detroit Lions: The Lions finally pulled the plug on the Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn eras in the offseason and also parted ways with the best quarterback in franchise history, Matthew Stafford. 

Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (16) talks to offensive lineman Frank Ragnow (77) during training camp at the practice facility in Allen Park, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021.

They replaced Stafford with another former No. 1 pick in Jared Goff. Goff has played in a Super Bowl, but hasn’t yet developed into more than a game manager at the quarterback position. This season, he’ll get a chance to prove he still has star potential in Detroit. If he can do it, expect the Lions to be a surprise team.

Goff’s work will be cut out for him, though, as Detroit lost its three top wide receivers from a season ago in free agency. Breshad Perriman – whose dad also played for the Lions – and Tyrell Williams are solid veterans and Quintez Cephus, a second-year player, is and intriguing speed threat. 

The real star of the offense should be tight end TJ Hockenson, who could emerge as one of the best in the NFL this season. The team also invested in the offensive line by drafting Penei Sewell in the top 10. If Sewell can protect Goff and Goff and Hockenson form some quick chemistry, Detroit could be better than expected.

Predicted Finish: 1. Green Bay 2. Minnesota 3. Chicago 4. Detroit

NFC South 

Two of the most dynamic offenses in football, as well as the team that won the Super Bowl, came out of the NFC South last season.

While one future Hall of Fame quarterback from the division retired in Drew Brees, Tom Brady is back to try and lead Tampa Bay to another title. Carolina and Atlanta are still in the midst of rebuilds, but both added to their roster in the offseason. Here’s a look at how the NFC South stacks up.

Jun 9, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) at AdventHealth Training Center. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints: The Saints actually entered last season’s playoffs favored over Tampa Bay to advance to the Super Bowl, thanks in large part to a dynamic offense and a stifling defense. Brees’ loss got the most publicity, but the Saints actually lost big parts of both the offense and defense, adding major questions to whether they can make another playoff push.

Brees retiring certainly causes some questions on offense, but replacement Jameis Winston, a former No. 1 pick who has had some success in the NFL, has the potential to keep things on track. Taysom Hill, who is known more for his running ability than his passing, is also a factor in the competition. Expect Winston to get the job first, but Hill to still see plenty of plays to take advantage of his unique skillset.

The Saints are hoping a key weapon for whoever the quarterback is can also bounce back. Receiver Michael Thomas had ankle surgery in the offseason after dealing with an injury for large parts of last season. He won’t be available early in the season. The team also lost talent at tight end, making things tough Winston or Hill.

On defense, Janoris Jenkins, Trey Hendrickson, Malcom Brown, Sheldon Rankins, Kwon Alexander, and Alex Anzalone are all gone and David Onyemata will miss six games serving a suspension. 

On offense, Alvin Kamura is still around and on defense, Marshon Lattimore is still anchoring the secondary, but that might not be enough to keep the Saints at the top of the division.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brady had a good first season in Tampa that turned into a great one down the stretch. Including the Super Bowl, the Bucs won their last eight games of the season and didn’t lose any significant pieces from that run in the offseason. 

Brady did have knee surgery in the offseason, so that’s definitely something to watch, especially with Brady’s age. His production has been MVP-level and almost beyond human compared to other quarterbacks who have played as long as he has, so despite showing no major signs of falling off, it is still something to watch for.

The offense will likely have another big weapon back at some point, too. Tight end O.J. Howard missed most of last season with an Achilles injury, but he is getting close to being able to return. With weapons all over the field for Brady and a sturdy offensive line protecting him, Tampa should easily win the division.

The team’s big strength on defense was its pass rush, and not only do they have those key players all back, they also added a first round pick in linebacker Joe Tryon who can rush the passer and also is a good defender in the passing game.

As long as everyone stays healthy, there is no reason to believe Tampa Bay can’t cruise to another Super Bowl appearance.

Carolina Panthers: It wasn’t long ago that Sam Darnold was thought of as an elite quarterback prospect, but after three unstable years with the New York Jets, he gets a chance to start fresh in Carolina. So far, the less chaotic atmosphere seems to be a good fit for him. 

The Panthers are hoping that Darnold is hoping to put last season behind him and build on a 2019 season in which he completed 62 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. If he can take care of the ball and improve his passing efficiency, he still has enough upside at 24 to become a long-term starter for the Panthers.

He’ll also have an important weapon back on the field. Star running back Christian McCaffery missed much of last season with injuries. His presence will give the team balance in the running game and Darnold a reliable target in the passing game.

Look for Carolina to try and turn its young defense loose this season. They added first round pick Jaycee Horn to the defensive backfield and linebacker Jeremy Chinn was one of the top rookies last season. The team struggled on defense overall, but they have some intriguing young talent along with veterans that were added in the offseason. If the Saints struggle and Carolina’s defense plays well, the Panthers could make a move in the division standings.

Nov 8, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) celebrates with teammates after scoring during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons moved on from a franchise cornerstone by trading receiver Julio Jones in the offseason, but they still have another around in quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan hopes to lead the Falcons out of last place in the NFC South, even without his favorite target around.

First round pick Kyle Pitts, a tight end, could quickly emerge as Ryan’s new favorite target, and Calvin Ridley is an established star in the league. Russell Gage is also a reliable receiver, so Ryan should have no shortage of targets to spread the ball around to without Jones.

The Falcons improved their secondary, especially the safety position, and they have an established star in Grady Jarrett. Their problem is depth, so if injuries occur, they could struggle again this season.

Predicted Finish: 1. Tampa Bay 2. Atlanta 3. New Orleans 4. Carolina

NFC East 

The NFC East was one of the most accidentally competitive in all of football last season, with Washington winning it despite finishing below .500. 

All four teams improved in the offseason and some injured stars are now healthy, so that should help ensure that the division winner at least has a winning record. But the division should still be competitive. Here’s a look at how the NFC East stacks up.

Jul 25, 2021; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) during training camp at the Marriott Residence Inn. Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Football Team: The Washington Football Team is dealing with a new leadership change at the top of the organization, is dealing with the ramifications of being last in the NFL in COVID-19 vaccination rate, and still hasn’t officially changed its name after announcing last year they’d move away from their previous offensive nickname.

With those issues on the periphery, it’s easy to lose focus on the fact that the team is trying to defend a division title.

No team has won the NFC East in two consecutive seasons since 2004, so the odds aren’t in Washington’s favor. They’re also working a new veteran quarterback into the lineup in Ryan Fitzpatrick. But they did have plenty of good things go their way last season, including a surprise breakout performance from rookie running back Antonio Gibson. The team hopes he can continue to grow and be the star of the offense.

On defense, they allowed the second-fewest points in the NFC and have an emerging young star in pass rusher Chase Young, although he was hampered by injuries last season. If a healthy Young can take a big leap forward, Washington could once again pull away in a winnable division in which every team has flaws.

New York Giants: There are a lot of questions for the Giants, but paramount among them is simply the health of star running back Saquon Barkley. 

Barkley missed nearly the entire season with an injury, and the team is being careful with him in training camp. But they hope he can return to the field and be the same dynamic force in both the running and passing games that he was prior to the injury.

If Barkley can return to his old form, that makes their other big question easier to answer – can quarterback Daniel Jones actually become an effective quarterback? Jones has shown signs of improvement, especially passing under pressure, but he is still turnover-prone and inconsistent.

Barkley’s return, combined with signing receiver Kenny Golladay in free agency, could help him significantly. Golladay is a big target and he’s one of the best in the league at contested catches, so expect him to become a favorite of Jones soon.

The Giants have young talent on the defense, so if the offense can even improve slightly, the team could make a big jump in the division standings.

Dallas Cowboys: No team stands to benefit from improved health more than the Cowboys. Their season derailed when quarterback Dak Prescott was lost to the season due to injury. His replacements couldn’t keep the offense on track, but his return should easily give Dallas the most offensive talent in the division.

Prescott does have a shoulder injury in training camp, so that’s definitely something to watch for. But the Cowboys expect him to be ready to start the season.

Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup are one of the most talented trios of receivers in the league and running back Ezekiel Elliott is also a major game-changer when he’s at his best. Elliott came into camp slimmed down, so expect to see even more burst from him this season. Improved health on the offensive line should also help both Prescott and Elliott.

The Cowboys are hoping first round pick linebacker Micah Parsons adds some dynamic playmaking to their defense. Dallas gave up the most points of any team in the East and the third most in the NFC last season, so they’ll need to improve that side of the ball to have a chance to move up.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles entered the offseason unsure of whether or not Jalen Hurts was a long-term answer at quarterback after he supplanted starter Carson Wentz last season. But after the team didn’t find a future prospect in the draft or a big name in free agency, Hurts has the job by default. 

Jul 29, 2021; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) in action during training camp at NovaCare Complex. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The team’s first round draft pick, former Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith, could help him solidify his spot with that job by giving him a big threat in the passing game. Jalen Reagor, their first round pick last year, could form an elite duo with Smith – if Hurts can improve his efficiency and get them the ball enough.

The defense has talent, but is aging, so if the Eagles can’t score a lot of points, they could be in trouble this season if the defense isn’t productive or has injury issues.

Predicted Finish: 1. Dallas 2. New York 3. Philadelphia 4. Washington

NFC West 

The NFC West was one of the most competitive in football last season. Things could get even tougher this season as the San Francisco 49ers get star Nick Bosa, who led them to a Super Bowl, back from injury that kept him out much of last season. Bosa hopes to be ready for the start of the season. 

Here’s a look at how this season’s NFC West race should shake out.

Jan 9, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf (14) celebrates with quarterback Russell Wilson (3) and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (54) after Metcalf scored a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half at Lumen Field. Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Seahawks: Seattle won the division last season, and then very nearly were forced to part ways with franchise quarterback Russell Wilson in the offseason. Wilson at one point in the offseason reportedly wanted to be traded. 

Wilson and the team seem to have mended the relationship, which is a positive for a Seahawks offense built around his talents.

The team still has to find a balance between the pass-happy system Wilson favors and coach Pete Carroll’s desire to have a strong running game, but as long as Wilson is around the team will contend.

DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are an exciting receiving duo, so Seattle should put points on the board, but with four matchups against elite defenses in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Seahawks can’t be one-dimensional on offense.

They also have another contract situation to resolve, as star safety Jamal Adams has an unresolved contract situation. The team doesn’t have much secondary depth, so getting Adams signed is critical.

Los Angeles Rams: The Rams have a Super Bowl-caliber defense, but that window is closing. They made efforts to make sure their offense doesn’t once again disappoint by acquiring former Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in the offseason.

Stafford, who has never won a playoff game, seems an odd choice on the surface for a team trying to win a title. But Stafford is an exceptionally gifted passer who has never had the kind of offensive talent around him that he now has in Los Angeles. He should have a big season and, more than his predecessor Jared Goff, has the ability to improvise and make plays on his own. That has been a glaring hole in the Los Angeles offense for some time.

The team might have to be more reliant on Stafford and the passing game than they anticipated, too. Running back Cam Akers ruptured his Achilles tendon and will miss the season. For now, the team will go with backup Darrell Henderson Jr., who had a solid season behind Akers last season. But expect Los Angeles to try and find an upgrade if Henderson struggles or better depth behind him as training camp progresses.

The defense should still be great with stars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey leading the way, but they have lost some depth, including Michael Brockers, John Johnson III, and Troy Hill. Los Angeles will have to fill those gaps by developing some young and unproven players as backups this season.

Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray has been a ready-made star in two seasons in the league and has pushed the Cardinals to the brink of playoff contention, but hasn’t yet been able to break through in the tough West. 

Arizona is still hoping to have star receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and important safety valve for Murray in the offense, back for another season. Fitzgerald is still considering retirement, though. Star DeAndre Hopkins is among the best receivers in the game, so he and Murray should once again be a dynamic connection, but Fitzgerald’s presence in the lineup takes pressure off of both.

The Cardinals also have issues to address on the defense. Star linebacker Chandler Jones has requested a trade due to being unhappy with his contract. J.J. Watt, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year who was signed in the offseason, was just placed on the PUP list because of a hamstring injury. 

The Cardinals have undeniable talent, but it is hard to see them going far in a loaded division without Jones and Watt.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are hoping that Bosa’s return once again makes their defense impenetrable and makes the team Super Bowl contenders.

The biggest question for the team is at quarterback, though. The Niners moved up in the first round to take Trey Lance, but the quarterback who led them to a Super Bowl, Jimmy Garoppolo, is still on the roster as well. Garoppolo is the starter, though, and unless he struggles or Lance forces the position into an open competition, expect Garoppolo to hold that job for the entire season.

Jul 28, 2021; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (97) runs during training camp at the SAP Performance Facility. Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The team also has to have star tight end George Kittle bounce back from an injury-plagued season. Kittle is a huge target for Garoppolo and one of the best tight ends in the league. He’s a huge part of their offense, so without him, they may not be able to score enough to compete in a stacked division.

The team also lost veteran cornerback Richard Sherman in free agency. Sherman also struggled with injuries last season, but he was a big part of the team’s Super Bowl run, so they’ll need to replace his presence.

Predicted Finish: 1. Los Angeles 2. San Francisco 3. Arizona 4. Seattle

AFC North 

The only division in football to get three teams into the playoffs last year should be even more competitive – all four North teams still have significant talent. But they’ll be hard-pressed to get three playoff teams again as the rest of the AFC has improved as well. Here’s a look at how the AFC North stacks up heading into the season. 

Jun 15, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) participates in drills during minicamp held at Heinz Field. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers looked like Super Bowl contenders for much of the season. Pittsburgh won its first 11 games of the season and was the last unbeaten team in the league before their week 12 loss. 

However, they lost five of their next six games including a loss to their rival Cleveland Browns in the first round of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh has future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back again. Roethlisberger again flirted with retirement before the season before deciding to play. He had a good bounce-back season last year from an injury-plagued 2019 season, but his age is still a factor. He’s lost arm strength, noticeable on deep balls. That’s also a problem in a Steelers offense that has two elite deep threats in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool. Both are talented enough to adjust to slightly underthrown balls and Roethlisberger is still a smart enough quarterback to get his best playmakers the ball effectively in other ways.

The team will try to protect Roethlisberger better, too. He’s always taken a lot of sacks, but the team is working with its tight ends to help them improve as blockers, which should help give Roethlisberger a little more time. They also signed Pro Bowler Trai Turner to strengthen the offensive line.

If the Steelers can keep Roethlisberger healthy, they should still be the most complete team in the division.

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are working on the same issue they have been every recent season. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is an elite, MVP-level player. But his passing ability is lacking, and the team’s passing offense in general was worst in the league last year. He’s already a special talent, but if he can improve as a passer, he could be truly unstoppable.

The Ravens remade their receiving corps in the offseason, adding star free agent Sammy Watkins and drafting Rashad Bateman in the first round. They’ll join holdover Marquise Brown, another recent first round pick, to hopefullyds give the team more production at the position.

Defensively, Baltimore has tried to address its pass rush. The team drafted Odafe Oweh in the first round and added linebacker Justin Houston in free agency.

Baltimore has had Super Bowl-worthy teams the last two seasons, but their lack of a passing game makes them easy to defend in the postseason. With Jackson and a productive group of running backs, Baltimore will always have a strong ground game, but if he doesn’t become more of a threat as a passer, it’s hard to see the Ravens making a deeper playoff run.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns were one of the biggest surprises in the NFL last season, ending a long playoff drought and doing so with a defense that was suspect beyond star Myles Garrett and an offense that was missing All-Pro receiver Odell Beckham Jr much of the season.

Former No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield finally found some consistency, and the team hopes he can build on that this season. The Browns are hoping that Mayfield’s newfound comfort in the offense means he and a healthy Beckham can finally form a chemistry that they haven’t had previously. If they do, the Browns offense could be among the best in the league.

Cleveland also spent a lot of effort improving its talent on defense in the offseason. Garrett and Denzel Ward are talented holdovers, and another former No. 1 pick in Jadaveon Clowney will join Garrett on the defensive line. They also plucked John Johnson III, an underrated safety from great Rams defenses in recent years, to bolster the secondary. If Cleveland’s defense improves as much as it should, look for the Browns to win the division.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals may not avoid another last place finish in a tough division, but they are moving in the right direction and they just gave young potential star quarterback Joe Burrow a weapon he’s familiar with in former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase, who the team drafted in the first round.

Burrow was an offensive Rookie of the Year candidate last season before an injury ended his rookie season early. His efficiency as a passer was great for a rookie, though, and with more weapons on offense, that should improve even more this season.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow practices his throws during the second week of training camp at the practice fields outside of Paul Brown Stadium Friday, August 6, 2021.

Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and Auden Tate give the Bengals a young, deep group of receivers who could be among the best in the league by the end of the season.

Cincinnati also needs to protect Burrow better this season. He was under constant pressure as a rookie, which made it hard to take advantage of the beautiful touch and accuracy he showed on his deep ball in college. With the skill position talent in place, now the Bengals simply need to make sure he stays upright and can make the throws.

Predicted Finish: 1. Cleveland 2. Pittsburgh 3. Baltimore 4. Cincinnati

AFC South

The team in the smallest market in the division and that only won one game a season ago might have had its most buzzworthy offseason ever as the Jacksonville Jaguars hired a big-name college coach who has never coached in the NFL, drafted one of the best quarterback prospects in recent history, and is … maybe … trying to convert a certain high profile former quarterback into a 33-year-old first-time tight end.

Will all of the attention be enough to move the Jaguars out of last place? Here’s how the AFC South stacks up. 

Jul 28, 2021; Nashville, TN, United States; Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) in a huddle during training camp at Saint Thomas Sports Park. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee Titans: The Titans had one of the best offenses in the NFL last season and went out and made it even more explosive by adding one of the greatest wide receivers of all-time in Julio Jones. 

Jones should benefit from quarterback Ryan Tannehill being one of the best in the league at throwing accurate deep balls. The Titans do need Jones to have a big season as the team lost key contributors Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis in the offseason.

Running back Derrick Henry has been one of the most productive stars in the league in his career, but he also touches the ball a lot and plays a physical style. Keeping him healthy and not relying on him too much should be big priorities for the Titans.

The biggest issue for the Titans is unchanged from last year – their defense doesn’t stop anyone. They did address it by drafting three defensive players and bringing in solid veterans in free agency. With their offense’s ability to score, the defense doesn’t have to be elite, it just has to get occasional stops. If it can, the Titans can make a Super Bowl run.

Indianapolis Colts: The Colts took a gamble when they traded for former first-round pick Carson Wentz to take over at quarterback in the offseason. Wentz is talented, has been productive, and is still young, but he’s always struggled with injuries. That has already been an issue with his new team.

Wentz is out indefinitely with a foot injury, and the Colts are reportedly exploring options for veterans on the trade market. The team’s current backups are inexperienced, so if Wentz’s injury keeps him out for an extended period of time, the Colts could have a hard time getting back to the playoffs.

The Colts were a surprise team a season ago with 11 wins, but had a quiet offseason. With Tennessee and Jacksonville both improving, the path back to the playoffs could be much more difficult.

Houston Texans: No team has had an uglier offseason than Houston, with star quarterback Deshaun Watson first demanding a trade and then being accused of sexual assault by numerous women. Watson’s future with the team is still up in the air, not to mention any legal or league consequences he’ll face as the legal process plays out.

Watson’s accusations are the most serious part of the offseason, but the team itself also faced some controversies, with criticisms of the influence a former team chaplain has gained in the organization’s decision-making processes.

Veteran Tyrod Taylor was brought in to possibly start should Watson be suspended or traded. Taylor is a reasonable stopgap, but the team has other significant on-field issues. They also lost former face of the franchise J.J. Watt in the offseason and will have to replace his leadership and production.

Houston is clearly in the midst of a transitional season, and Watson’s status will be lingering over them throughout.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars enter the season with former Florida and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer at the helm. Meyer is one of the greatest coaches in college football history, and is eager to prove he can excel at the pro level too. 

He’ll have a star rookie in No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, although he’ll be competing with incumbent Gardner Minshew for that spot. Lawrence is as pro-ready a prospect as there has been in any recent draft, though, so even if Minshew starts early, don’t expect that to last long.

Jaguars TE (85) Tim Tebow prepares to catch a short pass form QB (15) Gardner Minshew II during training camp at the practice fields outside TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, FL Tuesday, August 3, 2021. Tuesday was the first day of players wearing pads for practice. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

The team also added a lot of talent to the offense, including Carlos Hyde, Travis Etienne, and Marvin Jones Jr. Jacksonville will also have a media circus all season if former quarterback Tim Tebow makes the roster as a tight end.

The Jaguars might not yet be ready to contend for the playoffs, but they’ll at least be far more interesting this season and could improve in the standings in a weak division.

Predicted Finish: 1. Tennessee 2. Jacksonville 3. Indianapolis 4. Houston

AFC East

The AFC East has been dominated by the New England Patriots over the past two decades, but the team having a down season in 2020 opened a window for new contenders to emerge. With New England going on an offseason spending spree, can Buffalo and Miami continue their ascensions? Here’s a look at the AFC East.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen greets receiver Cole Beasley at the start of practice.

Buffalo Bills: Young quarterback Josh Allen made a leap from prospect to MVP candidate last season, and he’s still young enough that Buffalo can rightfully expect that he’ll continue to get even better.

Buffalo won its last six regular season games last season despite its defense sliding back a bit from previous seasons when they were ranked in the top five.

The Bills drafted two defensive ends early in the draft to help improve the pass rush and get Star Lotulelei back after he opted out of the 2020 season.

Buffalo’s offense is among the most potent in the league, and if their defense can get back into top 10 range, they should be a Super Bowl contender again. 

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins emerged as a surprise playoff contender last season, led by rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Then they spent the offseason dangling Tagovailoa in trade rumors as the Dolphins pursued Deshaun Watson, so it remains to be seen if that has any impact on his confidence.

Tagovailoa was solid in terms of taking care of the ball as a rookie, but he wasn’t able to provide many big or dynamic plays and Miami needs him to improve that this season in order to make their offense less predictable. The good news is that, early in camp, he seems to be doing that.

Tagovailoa’s improvement obviously is key to what Miami’s ceiling is, but their defense made great strides last season. Those could be undone partially depending on what happens with defensive back Xavien Howard, who has asked for a trade.

Noah Igbinoghene, a 2020 first-round pick, could take over for Howard if he’s traded, but he struggled last season. The secondary was the biggest strength of the defense last season, so without Howard, that could make their defense less dominant.

New England Patriots: The Patriots clearly didn’t intend for 2020 to be the start of a prolonged rebuild. They brought in tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry to bolster the passing game. They also made moves to strengthen the offensive line and the defense.

New England brought back veteran and former MVP Cam Newton to be their starting quarterback despite a down season a year ago. Then things got complicated when quarterback Daniel Jones fell to them in the draft. The Patriots still say Newton is their starter, but if he struggles again this season, there is an option behind him that will be putting pressure on.

The biggest issue for New England will just be whether or not they can score more points. Their 326 points were third-worst in the division and among the worst marks in the AFC. If the new weapons on offense and improve the passing game and Newton can stay healthy, the Patriots could make a big improvement.

New York Jets: Even when things go well for the Jets, they’re still the Jets. They brought in a new, respected coach in Robert Saleh and then drafted a quarterback of the future in Zach Wilson in the first round. 

But then, they were the last team to agree to a contract with their first-round pick, unnecessarily prolonging Wilson’s ability to fully immerse with the team. They also have a contract dispute with safety Marcus Maye, who hinted that he’d prefer to play somewhere where he’s “wanted.

Jul 31, 2021; Florham Park, NJ, USA; New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh walks between defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi (94) and defensive end Nathan Shepherd (97) during training camp at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It won’t take much for the Jets to improve on their two-win season last season, but they’re still lacking enough talent to compete in the East.

Predicted Finish: 1. Buffalo 2. New England 3. Miami 4. New York

AFC West

The Kansas City Chiefs have made two straight Super Bowls and won the NFC West three straight seasons. The Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders both have up-and-coming talent, but probably still not enough to supplant Kansas City at the top of the standings. Here’s a look at how the AFC West stacks up heading into the season.

Jul 28, 2021; St. Joseph, MO, United States; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass during training camp at Missouri Western State University. Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Chiefs: Kansas City spent a lot of the season looking unbeatable, until an elite pass rush in the Super Bowl exposed a major flaw – their offensive line. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was running for his life much of the game and the Bucs grounded Kansas City’s high-powered offense.

The Chiefs added several new faces to their offensive line, including bringing All-Pro Kyle Long out of retirement to help revamp it. Mahomes has never been protected especially well in his career, so seeing him behind a high-performing offensive line could lead to historic passing numbers.

The Chiefs also have to replace the production of receiver Sammy Watkins, who left in free agency. 

Kansas City did copy a bit from Tampa Bay’s playbook in the offseason by adding elite depth to the defensive line. They should be able to put constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. 

Las Vegas Raiders: Jon Gruden has revamped pretty much every position on the Raiders since his tenure, with the exception of quarterback. Derek Carr remains the starter, and he is coming off of a big season statistically, but the Raiders are coming off of an 8-8 season and haven’t had any playoff success with Carr at the helm. He could be nearing the end of his tenure with the franchise if they don’t make a big jump forward this season.

The bigger issue for the Raiders is the defense, though. Las Vegas was competitive against the league’s elite teams, but late miscues and inabilities to get stops cost them close games against Kansas City, Miami, and the Chargers, which would’ve put them in the playoffs had those games gone their way.

The Raiders had a quiet offseason and hope instead that defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, formerly of the Seahawks, will implement the same system he used to great success in Seattle and the youth on the defense will mature.

Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Herbert quickly emerged as a potential future star at quarterback last season, and the Chargers were one of the most hard-luck teams in the league, losing more close games than any team in the league.

Los Angeles made a coaching change in the offseason, revamped the offensive line, and hopes that Herbert building on a historically good rookie season will propel them to a big improvement.

Defensively, Joey Bosa will lead what should be an improved unit. If they can get consistent pressure on quarterbacks and create some takeaways, expect the Chargers to be a serious playoff contender.

Denver Broncos: The Broncos were on the verge of making an all-time great upgrade at quarterback with trade rumors suggesting Aaron Rodgers was nearly acquired prior to the NFL Draft.

Instead, the team might have to settle for just a slight upgrade at the position. Last year’s starter, Drew Lock, is still around but he was erratic. Veteran Teddy Bridgewater was brought in to compete for the starting job. Bridgewater isn’t spectacular, but he takes care of the ball and completes a high percentage of passes.

Jun 1, 2021; Englewood, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) and quarterback Drew Lock (3) during organized team activities at the UCHealth Training Center. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Lock makes more big plays, but also more mistakes. Bridgewater is sometimes too risk-averse in making plays downfield. Whoever wins the job will have flaws, but the competition should be good for whoever ultimately wins the job.

The Broncos still have a lot of defensive talent, so if Von Miller and company can get healthy, they just need a quarterback who doesn’t take them out of games with mistakes. That’s most likely Bridgewater.

Predicted Finish: 1. Kansas City 2. Los Angeles 3. Denver 4. Las Vegas

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