Dark horse Super Bowl contenders in the AFC and NFC

The 49ers are back to being a threat

By: Adam Hulse (@AdamHulseSports)

As the kickoff to the 2021 NFL season quickly approaches, it’s time to start really taking a look at what teams are built to make a Super Bowl run. There are certain teams on all radars such as the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Bucs, and Green Bay Packers but there are no sure things at all in the NFL. Every season is different and filled with surprises. There are always teams that exceed expectations as well as others that greatly disappoint. Looking past the top favorites, here are a few teams that have a realistic opportunity to be Super Bowl contenders this year.

NFC: Dallas Cowboys

The 2020 season was one to forget for the Cowboys but that is mostly because quarterback Dak Prescott was only able to play in five games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. In 2019 Prescott lead the Cowboys to be the top-ranked overall offense in the NFL at 431.5 yards per game, the second-ranked passing offense at 296.9 yards per game, and the sixth-ranked scoring offense at 27.1 points per game. It’s possible that these totals could be even higher in the 2021 NFL season with the addition of CeeDee Lamb to the returning weapons of Ezekiel Elliot, Amari Cooper, and Michael Gallup. The defense has been an issue for the Cowboys, especially in the 2020 season where they were towards the bottom of the NFL in almost every category, but drafting Micah Parsons and signing Dan Quinn to be the new defensive coordinator should both greatly help to improve on that side of the ball. Finally, the Cowboys have the second easiest strength of schedule ranking this year so they have an excellent opportunity for a huge season.

NFC: San Francisco 49ers

Unfortunately, the 49ers season in 2020 was one that was defined by an endless list of injuries including key players like Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, and Nick Bosa. It was a very disappointing season, especially considering that they were the defending NFC Champions. Looking back to the 2019 season when they were healthy, they had the fourth-ranked total offense at 381.1 yards per game and the second-ranked scoring offense at 29.9 points per game to go with the second-ranked total defense at 281.8 yards allowed per game and eighth-ranked scoring defense at 19.4 points allowed per game. This obviously demonstrates not only how dominant they were but also their elite balance. They were towards the top of the NFL in just about every statistical measure and they have good reason to believe they can have a similar season in 2021 now that everyone is healthy again and they are returning the large majority of their roster.

AFC: Tennessee Titans

Possibly the biggest move of the entire NFL offseason was the Titans adding superstar wide receiver Julio Jones to their already potent offense. They were already the second-ranked total offense last season at 396.4 yards per game and will likely be much better this year with their new weapon. The Titans offense is going to create a huge problem for opposing defenses now that Jones is joining AJ Brown and Derrick Henry. In particular, the defending safeties are going to have to pick their poison. It’s impossible to double team both wide receivers as well as load the box to defend against the dominant rushing attack of Henry. If these three players, and also quarterback Ryan Tannehill, can all stay healthy this season the Titans are likely going to have a very special offense. Their defense was fifth-worst in the NFL last season at 398.3 yards allowed per game but they are hoping their added reinforcements, such as Bud Dupree and Caleb Farley, can help them improve on that side of the ball.

AFC: Pittsburgh Steelers

After finishing the 2020 season with a 12-4 record and winning the very tough AFC North division it’s a little strange to consider the Steelers a dark horse but that is exactly what they are. According to the Draft Kings Sports Book, they have only the 16th best odds to win the Super Bowl this year and their projected win total is just 9 games. This is interesting because they are returning all of their offensive weapons and the majority of their impact defenders as well. In addition, they probably upgraded at running back by drafting Najee Harris and will get back one of their best defenders, Devin Bush, who missed ten games last season. The biggest loss for the Steelers this offseason was to their offensive line, where they will basically have a brand new unit this year that is completely unproven. The Steelers are not getting much respect at all heading into the 2021 NFL season but as long as their blocking comes together, they can be right back in the mix again for a Super Bowl.

Could the AFC West have four Playoff Teams?

Could AFC West feature four playoff teams?

By: Adam Hulse (@AdamHulseSports)

With the NFL Playoffs expanding its field of Wild Card teams to three per conference instead of two, it is now possible for an entire division to make the postseason. That is what the AFC West division will be looking to accomplish this season, as all four teams have aspirations of making the playoffs. It would be the first time NFL history for that to happen, but the question is whether or not that is a realistic scenario. Let’s first take a quick look at each of the four teams’ outlooks for the upcoming 2021 NFL season.

Kansas City Chiefs

The two-time defending AFC Conference Champion Kansas City Chiefs are pretty much a lock to make it to the playoffs as long as superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes is healthy. They were the best offense in the NFL last year by a wide margin, with their 415.8 yards per game leading the second-best offense, the Buffalo Bills, by almost 20 yards per game. As an example of how big of a gap that is, the 12th ranked New Orleans Saints offense were 20 yards behind the second-ranked Bills. The Chiefs are returning both of their key offensive weapons in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill so there is no reason at all to believe that their offense won’t once again be a dominating force. Pair their elite offense with one of the greatest offensive minds of all time in head coach Andy Reid, and even an underrated defense to go with it too, and the Chiefs are without a doubt one of the best teams in the NFL.

Los Angeles Chargers

The Los Angeles Chargers are a team that has the potential to take the next step this season. The main reason being that it looks like they found a star quarterback in Justin Herbert. He put together a very impressive rookie campaign by completing 66.6 percent of his passes for 4336 yards and 31 touchdowns on his way to leading the Chargers to a solid seven-win season. If he can continue to improve in his second season, he can already be a top ten quarterback in the league, which always gives any team a chance to make a run into playoffs. They have a solid defense that ranked 10th in the NFL last year at 343.4 yards allowed per game and will get a huge boost this coming season with the return of superstar Derwin James. He is not only one of the most dynamic players in the entire NFL but also one of the absolute best all-around defenders. With the rise of Herbert and the return of James, the Chargers have a shot to make some noise this year.

Denver Broncos

On paper, the Denver Broncos are stacked on both sides of the ball. Their offense has a ton of dangerous skill position players including Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, Melvin Gordon, and Javonte Williams while their defense is loaded with talented and productive players like Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, Kyle Fuller, and Justin Simmons. The only real problem with their team, and it’s a huge one, is the question mark at the quarterback position. There’s an old saying that “if you have two QBs, you have no QB” and that applies to the situation in Denver with Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. Neither of them are necessarily bad, but they are definitely not impressive either., If one of the two QBs can emerge as a reliable option, or if they trade for an upgrade, then they can surely be a contender because the rest of the team is fully built and ready to win now.

Las Vegas Raiders

The Las Vegas Raiders, who finished in second place in the AFC West last year with eight wins, are the type of team that has a low floor but also a high ceiling heading into the 2021 NFL season. They were the 8th ranked offense last season at 383.3 yards per game, mostly due to their two stars in tight end Darren Waller and running back Josh Jacobs. They did add another back in Kenyan Drake, which adds another dimension to their offense because of his pass catching abilities out of the backfield. The Raiders biggest loss by far this offseason is to the offensive line, which used to be a major strength of the team. They very strangely traded away three of their starters in Trent Brown, Gabe Jackson, and Rodney Hudson to rebuild a unit that didn’t appear to need it. Regardless, they will enter this year with hopes of competing for a postseason appearance, which is something they fell just short of last year.

AFC Playoff Picture

Anything can happen in the NFL, but realistically it appears that 12 of the 16 teams in the AFC have a shot to make the playoffs, excluding the Jaguars, Texans, Jets, and Bengals. Of those 12 teams, four of them will get in automatically for winning their division, so that guarantees one team from the AFC West. Along with the remaining three teams from the AFC West competing for the three remaining wild card spots there will also be five other solid teams that were not division winners fighting for those same spots. That field of teams joining the race will likely be some combination of five of the following teams including the Bills, Patriots, Dolphins, Ravens, Steelers, Browns, Colts, and Titans.

All things considered, it is very likely that the AFC West will get at least two teams and there is a real shot that they will get three teams in the playoffs, but because of the competition that they are facing, it is unlikely that all four will find their way into the NFL Playoffs this year.

3 reasons why the Chicago Bears could get back to the playoffs

Bears return to the playoffs in NFC North?

By: Ian Evans

The Chicago Bears had themselves quite an interesting 2020-2021 NFL season. They started the season 5-1 through the first six weeks. However, that changed in rather quickly as they immediately went on a six-game losing streak and quickly dropped to 5-7. The Bears would end up finishing the regular season at 8-8 and just barely clinching playoff birth as a wildcard. 

Their one and playoff game last season was all too fitting for Chicago. There were dropped passes, missed opportunities, and costly penalties which ultimately ended their season as they lost to the New Orleans Saints 21-9 in the Wild Card round. Did I mention that they also lost on Nickelodeon? That can’t be fun. 

However, there are some bright spots for the Bears in 2021. They finally moved on from Mitch Trubisky and signed Andy Dalton to start at quarterback. Chicago fans had to be elated when they drafted sensational Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields with the 11th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. And made some subtle moves during the offseason adding Damien Williams, the speedy Marquise Goodwin, extended their consistent kicker Cairo Santos, and adding Desmond Trufant to replace Kyle Fuller who they released this past March.

For Chicago, this upcoming season has some promise, and if the correct pieces fall in line they could find themselves in the playoffs in 2021. Although they have the third most difficult strength of schedule, there are some positives for Bears fans to look forward to this season, especially after having quite possibly the best draft in 2021. From aspects such as their division to their stout defense, these are the three reasons why the Chicago Bears could get back to the playoffs.

1. The Current State of the NFC North

It’s no secret that the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers have a relationship to repair. There is some speculation that the reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers could end up leaving the Packers for a variety of reasons. But one of the main reasons why the Bears have had trouble winning the NFC North (besides 2018) is because of him. In his entire career, Aaron Rodgers is 22-5 against Chicago. For a team that’s trying to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years, they would love to see him go.

If Rodgers does end his tenure in Green Bay, this opens up the door for the Bears immediately. Why? Because the rest of the division is rather weak. The Lions are rebuilding after trading long-time Detroit Lion Matthew Stafford to the Rams and now have Jared Goff as their quarterback of the future. The Lions are not in “win-now mode” and most likely won’t be a threat in the 2021 NFL season. 

The only roadblock for the Bears if Rodgers does leave is the Minnesota Vikings. This team is led by Dalvin CookAdam Theilen, and their emerging star Justin Jefferson in an offense that ranked fourth in yards (6,292) and yards per game (393.3). However, there are still some questions surrounding Kirk Cousins and his ability to lead as the starting quarterback. They had a great draft and even added veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson to their secondary, but their defense did rank 29th in team defense last season. I think it’s safe to say their defense won’t have a major jump this upcoming season.

If everything falls in place with Rodgers leaving, the Vikings remaining inconsistent, and the Lions playing for draft picks, then the Chicago Bears should find themselves in the driver seat to win the division and in the playoffs for the second straight year. 

2. A Potential Top-10 Defense (Or Better)

This defense deserves a lot of credit for how they have played in recent years. If it wasn’t for this defense the Bears would never have made it to the playoffs. Why? They were ranked in the top half of the league in yards allowed per game (344.9, ranked 11th), passing yards allowed per game (231.6, ranked 12th), rushing yards per game (113.4, ranked 15th), and points allowed per game (23.1, ranked 14th). 

This defense is only getting better even without the presence of Kyle FullerKhalil Mack has an incredible supporting cast around him with, Roquan Smith and Akiem Hicks helping him on the defensive line. The secondary consists of Desmond TrufantEddie Jackson, and the recently signed Artie Burns. In the pass rush and pass defense, this team has the potential to wreak havoc and cause problems for opposing offenses. 

This defensive roster has the potential to be in the top ten instead of just barely scraping the top 15. If this defense plays as good as they are on paper, they should be able to compete with anyone in the league.

3. Plenty of Young and Improving Offensive Talent 

The young talent for the Chicago Bears, especially on the offensive side of the ball is impressive and they’re only getting better. The future could potentially look extremely bright with the offensive talent they have drafted and improved. 

As I previously mentioned, the team drafted Justin Fields from Ohio State who could potentially be their quarterback of the future. If Andy Dalton fails to play well, Fields could not only see the field but also find a way to win the starting job. Having a former college sensation under center would raise the level of excitement in Chicago.

Besides Fields, there are other prospects that can make an immediate impact this year. Darnell Mooney out of Tulane University is a player with crisp route running and speed who is only improving. He broke the Bears’ receiving record for a rookie, and his expectations for his sophomore season are high. Cole Kmet has the potential to be a consistent tight end for them and Anthony Miller could be motivated to play well as has a lot to prove after it has been reported that he’s on the team’s “bubble.”

Then there are the two talented offensive tackles Chicago drafted in Tevin Jenkins from Oklahoma State and Larry Borom from the University of Missouri to help boost their pass protection (which they desperately needed). This gives Dalton the time to throw to the reliable hands of Allen Robinson and time for David Montgomery and Damien Williams to actually produce in the ground game. These young guys could be carrying this offense in 2021.

If the young talent can improve their game with consistent quarterback play from either Dalton or Fields and their running back and receiving core boost their level of play from last year, this offense has the potential to be sneaky good. Granted, it depends on a lot of moving pieces and other aspects, but the potential is there. The young talent in Chicago is another major reason the Bears make the playoffs in the upcoming 2021 NFL season.

Why Wentz’s Colts are really Super Bowl contenders

Carson Wentz will return to being a star QB as an Indianapolis Colt

By: Adam Hulse (@AdamHulseSports)

The Indianapolis Colts are one of the teams with Super Bowl hopes heading into the 2021 NFL season. According to the Draft Kings Sports Book, they have the ninth best odds to win the Super Bowl this season and the fifth best odds to win the AFC Conference. After the Tampa Bay Bucs, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, who are clearly the top three most likely teams to win it all this year, the Colts are one of the teams in that second tier who can be real contenders this season. Here are some reasons why they are right in the mix.

Favorable Schedule

According to the strength of schedule rankings based on team records from last season, the Colts have the ninth easiest schedule in the NFL heading into this upcoming year. They also play in an AFC South division that appears to be a two team race right now between the Colts and the Tennessee Titans. The Houston Texans are a mess right now while rebuilding and might not even have star quarterback Deshaun Watson this season, or at least for part of it, because of the off the field issues he is currently dealing with. The Jacksonville Jaguars are an improving team in the middle of their own rebuild but probably are not ready to really compete yet. All of these factors combined give the Colts a very favorable schedule situation this season with a relatively easier path to the NFL postseason as either a division winner or even a wild card.

Solid Roster

The Colts are a well balanced team that do not have any real weaknesses. Last season, their offense ranked 10th in total yards, 9th in points scored, 11th in passing yards, and 11th in rushing yards. Their defense ranked 8th in yards allowed, 10th in points allowed, 5th in turnovers forced, and 12th in sacks. This shows that they were firmly in the top half of the league for almost all measures on both sides of the ball. They win in a wide variety of ways and have no real weak spot for an opposing team to expose.

They have a very solid roster that is talented at all of the position groups. They have one of the top offensive lines in the NFL lead by the best overall blocker in guard Quentin Nelson. Their stable of multiple running backs is lead by a young emerging star in Jonathan Taylor and they have many contributing wide receivers and tight ends that can spread the field. They are solid at all three levels on defense and even have a good special teams unit as well. Position for position on paper, they match up with any team in the league.

The Quarterback Situation

In theory, the Colts believe they made a major upgrade at quarterback this season by acquiring Carson Wentz from the Philadelphia Eagles to replace the now retired Philip Rivers. The Colts were already a playoff team last season, and came very close to upsetting the Bills, so if they did in fact improve at quarterback then they definitely increase their chances of a Super Bowl run greatly. Wentz has struggled in his last couple of years but he was playing at an MVP caliber level before his major injury.

The best version of Wentz was back in 2017 where he was a favorite to win MVP before going down with an injury. Through 11 games that season he threw for 3296 yards with 33 touchdowns against just 7 interceptions and a strong 78.5 QBR. That’s a big difference from his 2020 campaign where he eventually lost his starting job to Jalen Hurts. Last year across 12 games played he threw 2620 yards with just 16 touchdowns against an alarming 15 interceptions and a very disappointing 49.6 QBR.

In comparison, Rivers last season for the Colts played all 16 games while throwing for 4196 yards with 24 touchdowns against 11 interceptions and a 62.5 QBR. That’s definitely better than what Wentz was able to do for the Eagles last year but nowhere near as good as the 2017 Wentz. In Fact, Rivers has never in his very solid career had a season as good as Wentz was having in 2017. It’s that version of Wentz that the Colts believe they can revive this upcoming season and why they believe it is a huge upgrade at the quarterback position.

Interestingly, when Wentz was playing his best football it was under the offensive scheme of Frank Reich, who is now the head coach of the Colts. The belief of the organization, and the reason why they went out and got Wentz, is that pairing him back up with Reich will get him back on track. It is surely a gamble considering how far he has fallen off, but if they are right then the Colts instantly become a serious Super Bowl contender. After all, the Eagles team that won the Super Bowl was not as talented as this Colts team is now. The fate of the Colts this season is directly linked to what version of Wentz is playing quarterback.

Top 5 dark horse wildcard playoff teams right now

New AFC and NFC teams that could make playoffs this year

By: Adam Hulse (@AdamHulseSports)

Every season in the NFL there is a new field of playoff teams. It is extremely rare for the same exact group of teams to make it two years in a row, especially when it comes to the wild card spots. There are always teams every season that plays far below their expectations while other teams end up being much better than projected. Let’s speculate who some of the dark horse candidates could be this year for the wildcard spots in the playoffs. We will define a dark horse as a team that finished below 500 last season and did not make the playoffs. Here are five teams that fit the criteria.

New England Patriots

It seems a little strange calling the Patriots a dark horse considering how long they dominated the AFC and even the NFL in general but that’s exactly what they are heading into this season. Last season was the first time since 2008 that they missed out on the playoffs. Ironically, they actually won 11 games that year and were only the second team in the modern era to win that many games and not make a postseason appearance. Before 2008, the last time they missed the playoffs was in 2002, which was the first full season for Tom Brady.

Their 7-9 record in 2020 broke their incredible streak of 19 consecutive winning seasons. The last time they had a losing season was when they went 5-11 in the year 2000, which was before the Brady era. All things considered, it’s amazing how quickly they went from annual favorites to win the AFC conference to a team that’s being considered a dark horse team. Losing the greatest quarterback of all time can have that effect.

Quarterback Cam Newton will enter his second season as the starter for the Patriots. It was a roller coaster of a 2020 season for Cam, who dealt with all sorts of adversity including injuries, Covid, and a lack of offensive talent. Despite finishing the season with a losing record, they were really just a couple of plays away from a winning season and being right in the race for a wild card last year. The two plays that really jump out are the fumble against the Bills on a game-winning drive and being stuffed at the goal line on the last play of the game against the Seahawks. That was likely the slim difference between 9-7 and 7-9.

That is still no excuse because the NFL is a game that is often determined by a play or two here and there. The Patriots did not make those plays which are why they finished as a losing team. This year could be a different story as they look to make another postseason run. They will return a bunch of key players on defense who sat out last year because of Covid and also added some offensive weapons in the offseason including Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Kendrick Bourne, and Nelson Agholor.

Defense is a staple in New England and it will be better this year with who they have returning. As for the offense, there is much to be optimistic about with Cam leading the way. He has a ton more talent surrounding him this year, he will finally be fully healthy, and he has had a full year to really learn the system and work with the coaching staff. Even if Cam struggles, they have a rookie in Mac Jones waiting for his opportunity to show what he can do. All things considered, don’t sleep on the Patriots this year.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers are another team that is not a traditional dark horse. They finished last season with a very disappointing 6-10 record but the year before that they represented the NFC conference in the Super Bowl. Interestingly, the majority of that roster is still with the team today including most of their key contributors on both offense and defense. The biggest difference between the 2019 and 2020 seasons was the health of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. In 2019 he played a full season of 16 games for the only time in his career while in 2020 he was only able to appear in 6 games. Unfortunately, because of his extensive injury history, 6 games is actually the second-most in a season for his career.

In his full 2019 season, Garoppolo was a good quarterback but was not exactly spectacular. He was more of a “game manager” type but not necessarily a huge difference-maker. It is widely believed that the team won the NFC mostly based on elite defense and their dynamic rushing attack designed by Kyle Shanahan. The massive drop-off in results between 2019 and 2020 is not simply just because Garoppolo was hurt. They had many other injuries as well, especially on the defensive side. It’s also important to note that the backup quarterbacks were an absolute disaster.

Nevertheless, Garoppolo will enter the 2021 season as the starting quarterback again. He will of course hope to stay healthy, something he has rarely been able to do, unfortunately, but will also be looking to get the 49ers back to their dominant 2019 version. If he is unable to do so, they will turn to Trey Lance, who is a very talented rookie that they traded up to draft. It is very possible that he will eventually be a star but just needs some time to develop. If he is ahead of schedule, he may even be an instant upgrade from Garoppolo.

The quarterback situation in San Francisco is fascinating considering all of the different factors. It could really make or break the 49ers this year. As stated before, they still have many of the key players on their roster from that 2019 team including George Kittle, Raheem Mostert, Fred Warner, and Nick Bosa. The 49ers are a talented enough team from top to bottom, coaches included, to not only qualify as a wildcard dark horse but a sleeper Super Bowl contender as well.

Carolina Panthers

A team that qualifies as a true dark horse candidate is the Panthers. This is a rebuilding team with the potential to be very competitive this season. They have a ton of young talent that pairs perfectly with their young up-and-coming coaching staff including Matt Rhule and Joe Brady. They finished last season at just 5-11 but the 2021 version has a real chance to far exceed that because of how different the roster will look from players returning from injury to changes in player personnel.

Maybe most important is the return of Christian McCaffrey from injury after playing just 3 games in 2020. He is the most dynamic player in the NFL when healthy and his 2392 total yards in 2019 prove it. Another key factor to their success is the fact they have switched quarterbacks this year from Teddy Bridgewater to Sam Darnold, who they acquired from the Jets. Darnold is a real wild card and it will be very interesting to see what he does in this new and much better situation that he is in. He was a very high-rated prospect but never quite worked out with the Jets, but will now have a much better roster and coaching staff with his new team.

Rhule and Brady are a major upgrade from the revolving disaster he was dealing with on the Jets. The weapons available to him on offense will be much better also, starting with McCaffrey and DJ Moore but also including Robby Anderson, with who he previously played and had some success. The Panthers also drafted three very talented rookie weapons in Chuba Hubbard, Terrance Marshall, and Tommy Tremble. Darnold has a real chance to thrive in this ideal situation.

The defense is still going to be a weakness of this team but they are trying to improve on that side of the ball as well. Adding cornerbacks AJ Bouye and Jaycee Horn is a great start to getting better but the unit is still a work in progress. Taking everything into consideration, the Panthers are a true dark horse wildcard contender with a very wide spectrum of possible outcomes this season. They could make the playoffs or could finish towards the bottom of the conference but one thing is for certain, the Panthers are trending in the right direction and are a team to watch.

Denver Broncos

On paper, the Broncos are a team loaded with talent. Unfortunately for them, it did not show up in the wins and losses last season as they finished a disappointing 5-11. Part of that is due to missing some key players like Von Miller but much of it can be credited to the big question mark at quarterback. Drew Lock has yet to prove that he can be a solid starter in the NFL. He has had some flashes of really good but also some long stretches of underachieving. This is why they decided to also bring in Teddy Bridgewater, but ironically his inconsistencies are not too different than those of Lock.

If one of these two Broncos quarterbacks can find a way to blossom into a better version of themselves then the Broncos can be a legitimate playoff threat. They are loaded at the offensive skill positions including Melvin Gordon, Javonte Williams, Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, and Noah Fant. They still have a very solid defense lead by superstar Von Miller and a stingy secondary anchored by Justin Simmons. This roster is built to win now if an answer can emerge at quarterback. They have the potential to be a team with double-digit wins and that makes them a dark horse for a wildcard this year.

Los Angeles Chargers

Not enough can be said about how good Justin Herbert was last year in his rookie season. Passing for 4336 yards and 31 touchdowns highlighted one best of the best rookie seasons ever. Herbert is what makes the Chargers a dark horse for a wild card this year. If he can repeat what he did last year, or possibly be even better than the Chargers need to be taken seriously as a contender this year. They did win just seven games last season but, more importantly, they actually finished the season on a four-game winning streak which included beating all three of the other teams in their division. This gives a great reason to be optimistic about the upcoming campaign.

Besides Herbert bursting onto the scene, the Chargers have a lot of good complimentary pieces as well. They have solid weapons on offense including Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler while also using this offseason to improve their offensive line and focus on protecting their young superstar quarterback. Their defense, lead by Joey Bosa, is well above average and they will be getting a huge boost this season with the return of Derwin James. He is one of the most dynamic defensive players in the entire NFL and is an absolute game-changer when he is healthy.

In conclusion, if the rookie year of Herbert was not a fluke and he actually is the real deal then the Chargers definitely have a shot to make the playoffs this year. Those chances improve even more if Derwin looks like himself upon returning. Though not impossible, it is still unlikely that they will beat out the Chiefs in the divisional race this year but don’t count them out of the wild card race.

3 surprise teams that could get the no. 1 seed

The Cardinals could get the first seed in the NFC

By: Ladarius Brown

Every season brings about a sense of opportunity for all 32 NFL teams to win the Lombardi Trophy (even you Texans & Lions fans). In reality, there are a handful of teams that are deemed to be top contenders. However, some could make some noise come playoff time. Here, three teams make some noise and can sneak up and get that No.1 seed.  

  1. Arizona Cardinals  

Looking at the NFC West this offseason, there was a lot of talk surrounding QBs this offseason such as Matthew Stafford in, Jared Goff out in L.A., or Russell Wilson being a Seahawk. Through it all, the Cardinals signed former Bengals 7x Pro Bowler WR A.J. Green and 5x All-Pro DE J.J. Watt. Green adds veteran experience to a solid WR core, which includes 3x All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, and their 2nd round pick out of Purdue Rondale Moore.   

Speaking of QBs, I believe that Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, is due for a breakout season. He has improved from year one to year two in passing yards (3,722 in 2019 to 3,971 last season) & completion % (64.4 in 2019 to 67.2 last season). While assessing his stats, something else stood out to me. Murray took way fewer sacks (only 27 compared to 48 in 2019). Throw in that they traded for Pro Bowl C Rodney Hudson to anchor the offensive line, Murray may be untouchable.   

Defensively, J.J. Watt gives them an even more stout defensive line. As a unit, the Cardinals’ defense had the 4th most sacks with 48. They also signed CB Malcolm Butler and LB Markus Golden to add with LB Chandler Jones, S Budda Baker, and CB Robert Alford. DC Vance Joseph has talent galore on this side of the ball. By the way, they added K Matt Prater, who made 84% of his kicks in his seven-year career at Detroit. Kickers are important…right Bears fans? They are a playoff team to me but can easily be a Super Bowl contender.  

  1. Los Angeles Chargers  

Staying on the West Coast, the Chargers’ 7-9 record could have been much better. They lost ten one-possession games and cost Anthony Lynn his job. Another factor was that many of their key players, especially on defense, were out for extended periods: S Derwin James, DE Joey Bosa, and CB Chris Harris, Jr. In January, the Bolts hired Rams’ DC Brandon Staley to replace Lynn. Last season, the Rams were the No. 1 defense in the entire league under Staley.   

In L.A., Staley inherits a defense that allowed the 10th fewest yards in the league and the reigning ROTY in QB Justin Herbert. Herbert had over 4,300 passing yards, threw 31 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, and had three game-winning drives. Like the Cardinals, they added stud C on the offensive line in Corey Linsley, once a member of the Green Bay Packers. His hands and mobility will be a great asset to the offensive line. They drafted T Rashawn Slater with their 1st round pick in this year’s draft and will likely be protecting Herbert’s left side.   

They play in the same division as Patrick (not Pat) Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. I contend that if the Chargers could have closed games, they would have been in contention for the AFC West crown and Lynn would still be employed. Joey Bosa had 7.5 sacks last season in 12 games. Imagine what a healthy Joey Bosa can do in 16 games? The Chiefs have played down in some games, which can be to the Chargers’ benefit.  

  1. Minnesota Vikings  

This pick here is heavily contingent upon Aaron Rodgers not playing for the Packers this season, which is likely to me. Looking at the Vikings’ schedule, it looks favorable to Minnesota, with no arduous back-to-backs, comparatively agreeable travel, and no real challenging matchups. GM Rick Spielman has drafted exceptionally well over the last two years and it is manifesting in many of the players.   

Look at their 2020 draft, they drafted WR Justin Jefferson of LSU & CB Jeff Gladney of TCU in the 1st round. Jefferson had 88 receptions, 1,400 yards receiving, and 7 touchdowns while Gladney started 15 games last season and had 63 solo tackles, which was 2nd on the team. This year, they drafted T Christian Darrisaw and will be a projected started. Also, one of the best picks in the entire draft, QB Kellen Mond of Texas A&M. They nabbed their quarterback of the future, learning under Kirk Cousins.  

Adding 3x All-Pro CB Patrick Peterson gives them a veteran in the secondary with S Harrison Smith, who could be DPOY. Head Coach Mike Zimmer, is a great defensive mind. He can coach up that side of the ball with the best of them. The biggest keys are if Cousins can play as he did in 2020: (4,265 passing yards, 35 touchdowns & 13 interceptions, and a 67.6 completion %) and if the defense can get to the QB (28th in the league with 23 sacks). Also, if the 1st and 2nd-year players can maintain how they played (I.e., Jefferson & Gladney) or exceed the expectations, you will Vikings fans exclaiming “Skol” in bars all across Minnesota. They probably do that anyway so… 

Why the NFC South is the most likely division to have four teams in the playoffs

Four playoffs teams in NFC South?

By: Eli Grabanski

When the NFL decided to expand the NFL playoffs for the 2020 season from six playoff teams in each conference to seven playoff teams per conference, it opened up an interesting possibility – having a division sending every team in it to the playoffs. It didn’t happen in 2020, but it very well could in 2021 with the way some divisions and matchups are shaping up. One division that has a great shot at being the first to send all four teams to the playoffs is the NFC South, consisting of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers. Let’s dive into why this division may be the most likely to accomplish this feat.

NFL Schedule

While the NFL schedule has yet to be officially released, we do know that the NFC South teams will play 6 divisional games, four games against all the teams in the AFC East (Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and the New England Patriots), and four games against all the teams in the NFC East (Washington Football Team, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys).

NFL Schedule Division Matchups
DivisionNFC OpponentAFC Opponent
NFC SouthNFC EastAFC East
NFC NorthNFC WestAFC North
NFC EastNFC SouthAFC West
NFC WestNFC NorthAFC South
AFC SouthNFC WestAFC East
AFC NorthNFC NorthAFC West
AFC EastNFC SouthAFC South
AFC WestNFC EastAFC North
2021 NFL Schedule Matchups
NFL Schedule 17th Game Opponents
TeamOpponent
New Orleans SaintsTennessee Titans
Tampa Bay BuccaneersIndianapolis Colts
Carolina PanthersHouston Texans
Atlanta FalconsJacksonville Jaguars
NFL Schedule 17th Game Opponents

Each of these teams getting four games against the worst division in the league last year in the NFC East provides a major boost in chances for the NFC South sending four teams to the playoffs. The NFC South has a more favorable schedule in 2021 than other top candidates to send four teams to the playoffs, the NFC West and the AFC North, and that gives them a significant boost in potentially sending four teams to the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl champions and managed to retain all 22 of their starters from the championship-winning team last year. This was an incredible feat to accomplish considering that guys like Chris Godwin, Leonard Fournette, Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, Rob Gronkowski, Ndamukong Suh, and Antonio Brown were all free agents after the season. In addition, there were no major coaching staff shakeups with Bruce Arians, Byron Leftwich, and Todd Bowles all coming back for the 2021 NFL season as well. Having all this talent still in place for the 2021 season makes it difficult to see the Buccaneers missing the playoffs and once again a threat to win the Super Bowl.

New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints will not have their future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees for the 2021 season…but the team has actually done remarkably well without him the past couple of years. The Saints went 5-0 in Brees’s absence with Teddy Bridgewater during the 2019 season, and they went 3-1 with Taysom Hill in Brees’s absence during this past season. They still have skill-position talent on the offensive side of the ball, with Alvin Kamara (RB) and Michael Thomas (WR) being two of the top players at their respective positions. They still have one of the better offensive lines in the league, ranking as the 8th best offensive line in 2020 according to PFF and keeping many of the line’s key members. And while they no longer have Drew Brees, they have a couple of competent quarterback options in Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston to keep the offense performing at an above-average level. Their defense ranked as a top-five unit last year and should be a solid unit once again under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Overall, the Saints may not be quite as good as the 12-4 team last year, but they maintained enough talent to be a good playoff team in 2021.

Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons may have finished 4-12 last year, but things are looking up for the 2021 season. The Falcons hired Arthur Smith to be the team’s new head coach and Smith has directed one of the best offenses in the league the past couple of years.

YearGamesTeam Passing Att.Team Passing Yds.Team Passing TDsTeam Rush Att.Team Rush Yds.Team Rush TDs
2019 Tennessee Titans1628247.251.8127.81138.941.31
2020 Tennessee Titans1630.31239.132.0632.56168.131.63
Arthur Smith Career Averages (OC)3229.16243.191.9430.19153.531.47
Arthur Smith Per-Game Stats As An Offensive Coordinator

Arthur Smith will make the Falcons a more balanced team between passing and running, and will utilize a ton of play-action to maximize the team’s efficiency. The Falcons offense will have the opportunity to go from a ‘very good’ offense to an ‘unstoppable’ offense in 2021 under Smith’s direction.

Besides Arthur Smith, the Falcons did a phenomenal job on filling out the rest of the team’s coaching staff. Perhaps the biggest member of the coaching staff that Smith hired was defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who has been an above-average defensive coordinator over the course of his career.

YearGamesPoints AllowedTotal Yds Given UpPlaysYards/PlayTurnovers Forced
2006 New England Patriots1614.81294.3859.384.962.19
2007 New England Patriots1617.13288.3158.314.941.94
2008 New England Patriots1619.3130957.55.371.38
2009 New England Patriots1617.81320.1958.815.441.75
2012 Baltimore Ravens1621.5350.9467.885.171.56
2013 Baltimore Ravens1622335.564.55.201.5
2014 Baltimore Ravens1618.88336.9464.635.211.38
2015 Baltimore Ravens1625.06337.3862.55.400.88
2016 Baltimore Ravens1620.06322.1362.065.191.75
2017 Baltimore Ravens1618.94325.0665.314.982.13
2018 Tennessee Titans1618.94333.3862.565.331.06
2019 Tennessee Titans1620.69359.5665.451.44
Dean Pees’ Career Averages (DC)19219.59326.0662.455.221.58
Dean Pees Per Game Stats As A Defensive Coordinator

Besides adding talent on the coaching side, the Falcons added some very talented players in the 2021 NFL Draft such as Kyle Pitts (TE), Richie Grant (S), Jalen Mayfield (OT), Darren Hall (CB), and Drew Dalman (C). All of these offseason moves by the Atlanta Falcons give the team a legitimate chance to compete for a playoff spot in 2021.

Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers are the biggest stretch to make the playoffs from this division, but they have a couple of things working for them. Last year, the Panthers had 11 games within eight points…and they went 3-8 in those games. The team was certainly better than they appeared last year and they have made some changes to the roster that may give them a much-needed boost to take the next step. They made a change at quarterback by moving on from Teddy Bridgewater and bringing in Sam Darnold to be the team’s new starting quarterback. Darnold has more upside than Bridgewater does at this stage of his career and raises the ceiling of the Panthers team – especially with two strong offensive minds in Matt Rhule & Joe Brady working with him. They made a flurry of moves in free agency, picking up guys like Haason Reddick (LB), A.J. Bouye (CB), Denzel Perryman (LB), and Da’Quan Jones (DT). They also added some great talent through the NFL Draft drafting Jaycee Horn (CB), Terrace Marshall Jr. (WR), Tommy Tremble (TE), and Chuba Hubbard (RB) among others. Given how many close games the Panthers played in during 2020 and the team’s upgrades in talent, they could make a run for one of the final playoff spots in the NFC for 2021.

Conclusion

Some divisions have the talent to potentially send four teams to the playoffs – like the NFC West or the AFC North. Other divisions have a schedule that makes it easier to send four teams to the playoffs but lacks the talent. But the NFC South is the division that has the best of both worlds for the 2021 season. Because of this, if any division is going to send all four teams to the playoffs for 2021, it will be the NFC South.

5 New NFL Playoff Teams For Next Season

By: Adam Martin (Twitter: @thereggambler1)

This season is starting to come to an end as we enter the Championship games and other teams are looking at next year. There have been plenty of GM and head coach appointments already and lots of talk about trades and free agency moves. With that in mind it’s time to make some predictions and decide who my five new playoff teams will be next year.

San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers had a bad year finishing last in the NFC West with a 6-10 record. They suffered an unprecedented number of injuries this season and it was to some big players. Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Raheem Mostert, and Deebo Samuel all missed significant time. That’s just on the offense, the defense also lost Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas in the first couple of weeks. Despite all of these injuries they still won six games and five out of the ten games they lost were one-score games.

You have to remember it was only last season that the 49ers made it to the Superbowl, showing how good the team is. The biggest negative was the QB play from Jimmy Garoppolo and there have been rumors about a change for some time. They could go for a trade or draft a QB and they are in a good position to as they pick at number 12. They also have $12m in cap space going into the offseason so they could make some free agency moves. They are in a tough division but they are more than capable of coming back strong next year.

Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys were another team that finished 6-10 for the season but their season could have been very different. Star QB Dak Prescott was badly injured in week six dislocating and fracturing his ankle leaving him out for the season. Dak is the star man in Dallas and to lose him so early in the season was always going to be the end for the Cowboys season. It goes to show how poor the NFC East is that the Cowboys nearly made the playoffs so with Dak back you would expect another run.

The Cowboys do have room to move this offseason as they have a nice amount of cap space and good draft picks. They can pick some high-end talent in the draft as they get to pick at number ten and have $17m in cap space. They also have a really good offense that will do well when Dak is back from injury. At the same time, the Defense did improve as the season went on and the change at Defensive Co-Ordinator will be positive. The defensive players in Dallas did not like the Mike Nolan set up and Dan Quinn will be a much better fit for them.

Miami Dolphins

The Miami Dolphins were very close to the playoffs and just missed out despite a 10-6 record. The Dolphins started with Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB but turned to new draftee Tua Tagovailoa. Tua looked ok at times but also looked like a QB that had missed his last season of college. Having a full off-season will be massive for Tua but there is also plenty of rumors about the Dolphins trading Tua. This would seem harsh on a kid that has just played half a season but Miami does have a lot of draft capital to use for a trade if they wanted to.

Four out of the Dolphins six losses were only one-score games and if they turned a couple of them around, they would have made the playoffs. They have a really good young defense and a strong head coach who will push this team even more. The Dolphins have a decent amount of cap space as well with $25m available so they can get a high-end wide receiver. If they can find that good wide receiver and maybe change the QB or develop him then they can make the playoffs next year.

Arizona Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals had a disappointing finish to the season-ending up at 8-8. Hopes were high for a playoff place as the Cardinals entered their second year with Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. They were not far off though as the Chicago Bears made it with an 8-8 record in the NFC. In the eight games that Arizona lost five of them were one-score games and so that could easily turn to wins. Another year with Kyler Murray as the starting QB will only see improvement in the system as well.

The Cardinals will be drafting at pick 16 this year so will be able to get some high-end talent. They also have a small amount of cap space which could help them in free agency. They also have a strong team with one of the best wide receivers around in DeAndre Hopkins. The defense finished as a top ten side for the season and that will be a strong basis to push them that step further. The Cardinals were close to making it this year and they should be expecting to reach the playoffs next year.

LA Chargers

The LA Chargers had a transitional season last year with the emergence of new QB Justin Herbert. The young rookie took the Chargers to a 7-9 season but the season could have ended very differently. Out of the nine losses, seven of them were one-score games and so could easily have been a winning season. Head coach Anthony Lynn has been moved on and been replaced by Brandon Staley. Staley is considered a player’s coach and has been spoken highly of during his time with the LA Rams. Herbert will cope with the coaching change fine as he has had five different coaches in his six years through college and the NFL.

This team is strong on both sides of the ball but a fresh approach is what the Chargers need. Hopefully, for them, this is exactly what Brandon Staley will be able to achieve. On the offense they have got quality players like Austin Ekeler and Keenan Allen signed up. Also, the defense has been underperforming and a strong defensive-minded head coach can change that. They are in a good position when it comes to replenishment with $23m of cap space and the thirteenth draft pick. The Chargers are not as far away from the playoffs as the 7-9 record makes it look and Staley could be the guy to push them to the playoffs.

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