By Christopher Farbolin
It has been a long and eventful three months since the Buccaneers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy to end the 2020 season. This offseason has been one of the most entertaining offseasons in NFL history due to several big name quarterbacks having drama with their teams. The draft was also entertaining as we had five top quarterbacks coming out of college this year along with several other potential franchise changing players. Perhaps the biggest news this offseason is the NFL’s decision to expand the regular season to 17 games. This is the first time the NFL has expanded its regular season since 1978 when the league went from 14 games to 16 games. This change has received mixed responses however I am mostly happy about the change. This change will give us all an extra week of regular season football and we also only have to sit through three weeks of preseason instead of four. I understand the preseason is necessary, however the fourth preseason game has always been meaningless as teams won’t play their starters at all during that game and are just looking to avoid injuries. Although I’m excited for a longer season I will admit that it will be weird seeing the records teams finish with. I have become accustomed to seeing teams finish 8-8 or 7-9. It will look weird seeing a team finish with a 7-10 or 9-8 record.
I have wanted to do predictions for the 2021 season for quite some time however I didn’t have a set schedule to work with. Now I finally feel that we are at a point in the offseason where we know how all these teams will look with the draft, free agency, and all the coaching changes complete. The NFL had their annual schedule release in the middle of the offseason last Wednesday night so I have all the information needed to make my predictions. I went through and picked the winner of all 272 games which was a tiring process but I am a football nerd who finds predicting the winner of 272 games quite enjoyable. I split my predictions into two columns with this one being for the AFC and a future one being for the NFC. With the NFL season being four months away here is how I see the AFC playing out in 2021.
* – denotes playoff team
1.*Buffalo Bills – 14-3
2.*Miami Dolphins – 10-7
3.New England Patriots – 9-8
4.New York Jets – 2-15
No division has been more predictable over the past two decades than the AFC East but that all changed last season. With the departure of Tom Brady and the rise of Buffalo and Miami the AFC East should be much more competitive in the future. The Bills are coming off of their first division title since 1995 and are destined to repeat. Buffalo has a great coach in Sean McDermott and also retains offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to work with Josh Allen. Allen also has a loaded offense to work with, having weapons such as Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Dawson Knox and free agent acquisition Emmanuel Sanders. Buffalo’s defense was solid in 2020 however their lack of a pass rush showed throughout the season. The Bills fixed that weakness in the draft by adding Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr. New England dominated the East forever now the Bills have the potential to do the same.
Miami was one of the biggest surprises last year going 10-6 and being within a game of making the playoffs. The Phins rebuild has taken much less time than expected considering they were tanking just a couple of years ago. The Dolphins had an excellent offseason signing Will Fuller and getting Jaylen Waddle and Jaelen Phillips in the first round of the draft. How Miami fares in 2021 comes down to the development of Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa actually did a decent job as the starter last year but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the media and fans. Several have already dismissed Tua as a bust despite the fact that he performed better as a rookie than several other rookies have in the past few years. Miami returns Devante Parker and Mike Geisicki and with the additions of Fuller and Waddle, Tagovailoa will have the weapons necessary to take the next step. Miami also has a manageable schedule that gets easier late in the season which will help the Dolphins playoff push. Miami shocked the football world last year and this year they take the next step and clinch their first playoff berth since 2016.
Last season was forgettable for the Patriots going 7-9 which is their worst season since 2000. The good news for the Pats is that they had plenty of cap space and draft capital to work with this offseason. No one was more aggressive in free agency than Bill Belichick who went out and solved most of New England’s needs in free agency. The Patriots improved their skill positions by adding Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne to help their stagnant offense. On the defensive side of the ball New England added Matthew Judon to improve their pass rush and brought back Kyle Van Noy. The biggest question with New England entering 2021 is their QB situation. Cam Newton is back on a one year deal and figures to be the Week 1 starter however if he struggles again we could see rookie Mac Jones sooner or later. The Patriots will bounce back and have a winning record however their uncertain quarterback situation keeps them out of the playoffs in a loaded AFC.
Nothing changes for the Jets as they begin a lengthy rebuild under first year head coach Robert Saleh and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. I was a fan of the Jets draft however this is easily the worst roster in the division and New York is still far from a real contender.
1.*Cleveland Browns – 12-5
2.*Baltimore Ravens – 11-6
3.Pittsburgh Steelers – 7-10
4.Cincinnati Bengals – 3-14
After 20 years of ineptitude and irrelevance the Cleveland Browns made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and won a playoff game for the first time since they were coached by Bill Belichick in the mid 90s. Ever since returning to existence in 1999 the Browns have been looking for the right head coach and quarterback. In 2020 they appear to have found both with Kevin Stefanski winning Coach of the Year in his first season and Baker Mayfield bouncing back from a sophomore slump. The Browns have also done a fantastic job surrounding Mayfield with great weapons. Cleveland has the best running back duo in football along with arguably the best pair of tight ends and will also be getting Odell Beckham Jr. back from injury. Pair those weapons with one of the best offensive lines in football and you have an offense that can matchup with the likes of Kansas City and Buffalo. The one weak spot on the Browns roster was their secondary which will be better due to draft picks and free agent signings. This roster is as good as any in the AFC now all they need is Baker Mayfield to elevate his play to a Pro Bowl caliber level.
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens came down to earth after a dominant 2019 season but were still able to make the playoffs and get Jackson his first playoff win which helped silence his critics. Baltimore has the most dominant rushing attack in football however their passing game leaves a lot to be desired. The Ravens are hoping that their wide receiver acquisitions Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman will improve what has been a very limited passing offense. We know the Ravens will be a threat in the AFC however the Browns have a more talented roster and the Ravens offense still has limitations and haven’t shown that they can keep up with Buffalo or Kansas City.
Just a few months ago the Steelers looked like a Super Bowl contender after starting off 11-0. Then the Steelers proceeded to go 1-5 down the stretch including an embarrassing loss in the Wild Card round to the Browns. Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl window has closed and the AFC is only getting better. The Steelers offense regressed towards the end of last season and now have lost multiple starters on the offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger’s age began to show last year and a deteriorating offensive line and lack of a running game won’t help. Pittsburgh does still have a great defense led by TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick that will keep them in games. With one of the toughest schedules in the NFL and a deteriorating offense the Steelers could very well have their first losing season in the Mike Tomlin era.
Cincinnati is heading in the right direction with Joe Burrow under center however the AFC North is still a tough division and the Bengals are easily the fourth best team in the North. With that being said I can’t wait to see Joe Burrow reunited with Ja’marr Chase. This offense should be fun to watch and Cincy could pull off a few upsets but are still a year away from being able to make a realistic push for a playoff spot.
1.*Indianapolis Colts – 10-7
2.Tennessee Titans – 9-8
3.Jacksonville Jaguars – 3-14
4.Houston Texans – 0-17
Indianapolis has quietly been one of the most consistent teams in the NFL making the playoffs in 2 of the last 3 seasons. This is despite the fact that Indy has had 3 different starting quarterbacks in the last three years and will once again have someone new under center in 2021. In one of the biggest moves of the offseason Indianapolis traded for Carson Wentz and will reunite him with Frank Reich. The last time Reich and Wentz worked together it resulted in an MVP caliber season before Wentz suffered a season ending torn ACL in December. Carson Wentz has been one of the most inconsistent QBs in football since then and is coming off of the worst season of his career, however being reunited with Reich and playing behind one of the best offensive lines in football should help Wenytz have a bounce back season. Indy also has one of the better defenses in football led by Darius Leonard and have second year back Jonatahan Taylor to help take some of the pressure off Wentz. The Colts are better than their record indicates but the first half of their schedule is brutal with games against the Rams, Seahawks, Ravens, and Dolphins.
Like the Colts, Tennessee has been a model of consistency coming off of their 5th straight winning season. Tennessee has been a top contender in the AFC ever since Ryan Tannehill took over at QB and had a career resurgence. However Tannehill is going into 2021 without his offensive coordinator Arthur Smith who is now the head coach in Atlanta. The Titans also lost some of their best pass catchers in Jonnu Smith, Corey Davis, and Adam Humphries and their first round pick from last year Isaiah Wilson is no longer on the roster. The biggest weakness for the Titans last year was their pass rush which should get better with the addition of Bud Dupree. I still expect Tennessee to be a threat in the AFC with Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and AJ Brown on offense however their schedule does them no favors having to play Kansas City, Buffalo, San Francisco, Seattle, and the Rams. Their season will likely come down to their Week 17 showdown against the Dolphins and I have Miami winning that game to get the final wild card spot in the AFC.
Optimism is high in Duval for the Jags future and for good reason. Jacksonville has a generational QB talent in Trevor Lawrence and have brought in several free agents and draft picks. The Urban Meyer hire is a risk with college coaches being hit and miss in the NFL but Meyer will have Lawrence to work with as he gets used to the NFL. Although I love the Jags long term future, 2021 shouldn’t be anything special for Jaguar fans. The Jaguars defense is still young and needs time to develop and their offensive line still needs work. Lawrence will have some weapons to work with including James Robinson, DJ Chark, Marvin Jones, and former Clemson teammate Travis Etienne. The good news for Jacksonville is that Trevor Lawrence’s first NFL game will be against the Texans who are practically an ACC team.
There’s not much to be said about the Texans current situation; it’s an obvious dumpster fire. I’m basing this prediction off of the assumption that Deshaun Watson will not play for the Texans in 2021. Between the legal situation going on right now and the fact that Watson has demanded a trade it’s safe to assume Houston will be down their Pro Bowl QB this year. That leaves the starting job for Tyrod Taylor who is a viable backup option but won’t have any help from this team. Houston’s offseason hires were questionable at best. Nick Caserio is unproven as a GM and we will have to wait and see if he can fix this mess. David Culley was the worst coaching hire this season and there were several candidates that were better out there. I wanted to give Houston a win out of pity but I show no mercy for them. By some miracle if Watson plays all 17 games for the Texans they would still only win three or four games.
1.*Kansas City Chiefs – 15-2
2.*Los Angeles Chargers – 11-6
3.Denver Broncos – 7-10
4.Las Vegas Raiders – 6-11
The Chiefs have absolutely dominated the AFC West winning the division every year since Peyton Manning retired. Kansas City is coming off of back to back AFC Championships and this conference clearly goes through Arrowhead Stadium. My biggest concern with KC was their offensive line that was decimated by injury in the Super Bowl. Kansas City has revamped their offensive line with Orlando Brown Jr, Joe Thuney, Austin Blythe, and Kyle Long coming out of retirement. This offense is still as good as any in football with Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek HIll, Travis Kelce, and Mecole Hardman. Retaining offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is great considering Bieniemy has been a top head coaching candidate for a few years. My one concern is the secondary which is young and unproven outside of the Honey Badger. If the secondary can improve throughout the year the Chiefs have a great shot of getting redemption for last year’s heartbreaking end.
I have the Los Angeles Chargers as the most improved team in the AFC going 11-6 and earning a wild card spot. LA has had as good of an offseason as any team in football as they build around their young star QB Justin Herbert. The Chargers got Herbert better protection up front by signing Corey Lindsley at center and drafting Rashawn Slater at left tackle. With an improved offensive line Herbert should build off of his historic rookie season. Not only is the offensive line better, the defense should improve as well. Newly hired head coach Brandon Staley coached the top ranked defense in 2020 with the Rams. Not to mention they get Derwin James back from injury and drafted Asante Samuel Jr. to a defense that already has other elite players in Joey Bosa and Chris Harris Jr. It seems like the Chargers are great on paper every offseason just to lose a bunch of close games and underachieve however I expect the Chargers to make a playoff run this season.
This time last year the Broncos were everyone’s dark horse(no pun intended) to make the playoffs in the AFC. However injuries to Von Miller and Cortland Sutton along with Ja’wuan James opting out quickly ended Denver’s hopes for 2020. Now entering 2021, both Vic Fangio and Drew Lock are on thin ice. Lock had a dismal second season after he showed tons of promise in his five starts as a rookie. Lock still has franchise quarterback potential and getting his best receiver back should help. The Broncos have some promising young offensive weapons in Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Noah Fant, and second round pick Javonte Williams at running back. This offense has potential but Drew Lock needs to make major improvements if they are going to reach said potential. Defensively Denver upgraded their secondary with first round pick Patrick Surtain II and Pro Bowl corner Kyle Fuller who previously played under Fangio in Chicago. Not to mention Von Miller is back after missing all of 2020 due to injury meaning this Broncos defense should be a force to be reckoned with. Although Denver could be a surprise playoff team they still have to face the Chiefs and Chargers twice and I still have questions about their offensive line and Drew Lock. Now if Denver trades for a certain Packers QB then I will change my mind.
Rounding out the AFC West is the Las Vegas Raiders who had a bad offseason. Vegas lost three of their starting offensive lineman and their best wide receiver Nelson Agholor. Some of their acquisitions didn’t make much sense such as signing Kenyan Drake when you already have Josh Jacobs at running back and have much bigger needs. The Raiders once again reached in the first round taking Alex Leatherwood who was a 2nd round prospect. The offensive line won’t be as good and the defense remains one of the worst in football. The Raiders have collapsed post Thanksgiving the last two years and judging by their late season schedule I can easily see that happening again.
AFC Playoff Predictions
1.Kansas City Chiefs – 15-2 (first round bye)
2.Buffalo Bills – 14-3
3.Cleveland Browns – 12-5
4.Indianapolis Colts – 10-7
5.Baltimore Ravens – 11-6
6.Los Angeles Chargers – 11-6
7.Miami Dolphins – 10-7