By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
The 2021 NFL season kicks off next week Thursday, so I thought now would be a good time to peek ahead and predict where every team will finish. First up is the National Football Conference, led by the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
1 – DALLAS COWBOYS (10-7): A healthy Dak Prescott will make all the difference. The Cowboys won’t be a Super Bowl contenders, but they’ll be good enough to take this mediocre division.
2 – WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM (10-7): Washington’s defense is scary good and should be for a while. When the offense gets more weapons to help out Ryan Fitzpatrick, look out.
3 – NEW YORK GIANTS (7-10): The Giant are treading water at this point. How much longer will they keep the Daniel Jones experiment going?
4 – PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (4-13): The Eagles will (as they should) give Jalen Hurts every opportunity to prove himself as a starting NFL QB. But just in case, they have Joe Flacco and now Gardner Minshew waiting in the wings.
1 – GREEN BAY PACKERS (11-6): Unless things fall completely apart between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ management team, Green Bay is the clear-cut favorite here. With both Rodgers and receivers Davante Adams likely gone after the season, it’s now or never for the Pack.
2 – MINNESOTA VIKINGS (9-8): The Vikings have plenty of offensive firepower, but the team’s success will hinge on its defense. Last season, injuries decimated the Vikings’ D, causing the team to drop to 29th in the league in points allowed.
3 – CHICAGO BEARS (9-8): Chicago could make a run toward the playoffs, but that won’t happen with Andy Dalton under center. Justin Fields is too good to be holding a clipboard.
4 – DETROIT LIONS (3-14): These Lions haven’t roared in a while. They’re a combined 14-33-1 in the last three seasons, and there is no reason to believe they’ll turn things around anytime soon.
1 – TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (13-4): Sure, Tom Brady is a year older – he recently turned 44 – but he’s still Tom Brady. Besides, the Bucs’ strength lies in its tough-as-nails defense. They’re still the class of this division, if not the conference.
2 – NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (10-7): The post-Drew Brees era begins for the Saints. The offense will struggle, as neither Jameis Winston nor Taysom Hill inspires much confidence, and ace receiver Michael Thomas will miss the early part of the season. The defense went through a lot of turnover in the offense, but has enough young talent to keep the Saints in contention.
3 – CAROLINA PANTHERS (7-10): Carolina will be bolstered by the return of Christian McCaffrey, who missed 14 games last season due to ankle and shoulder injuries. One of the league’s most interesting storylines is the Panthers’ addition of Sam Darnold. If he can finally live up to his pre-draft hype, the Panthers could sneak past the Saints.
4 – ATLANTA FALCONS (6-11): The Falcons have a new GM, a new head coach and a new No. 1 receiver (with Julio Jones gone, Calvin Ridley is the man). Thankfully, Matt Ryan is still the QB, and he’s still as prolific as ever. This team will go through their growing pains in 2021, but will show flashes of potential. Watch out for rookie tight end Kyle Pitts.
1 – SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (12-5): So far, QB Russell Wilson has said all the right things about his team’s new offense (led by new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron). If the scheme leads to more wins, that’ll keep Wilson happy. I’m betting it will.
2 – ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-6): I’m expecting a big year from Kyler Murray and his collection of talented receivers. The Cards should be improved on D as well. This is my surprise team in the NFC.
3 – LOS ANGELES RAMS (10-7): Was Jared Goff really the problem for the Rams last season? We’ll find out. More importantly, L.A. will need to replace some key players on both sides of the ball to stay in playoff contention.
4 – SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (7-10): Can the Niners utilize a two-QB system similar to how New Orleans used Drew Brees and Tysom Hill? Head coach Kyle Shanahan seems open to the idea. This team has some quality pieces in place, but the NFC West might be the most competitive division in the league.
PLAYOFF TEAMS: Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Arizona, Washington, New Orleans.
NFC CHAMPION: Seattle.
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