Ah, football. The United States’ unique past time of high-flying athletic achievement, incredible grace and willpower, and over-the-top violence in one neat package. What could be better?
The 2021 NFL season kicks off this week, and there’s never a shortage of fascinating storylines. Legends like Tom Brady, who will never, ever retire, seek insurmountable championships on loaded squads. The Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and company want to continue their AFC dominance, with teams like the Buffalo Bills — who haven’t been this good and this exciting in at least a quarter-century — nipping right at their heels.
In a game more predicated on the offensive side of the ball and its innovations, football seems healthier than ever. Do defensive coordinators, and young secondaries finally find means to bring back the “Boom”?
There are 17 games on the docket for all 32 teams for the first time. I don’t know what that means in the long run without seeing how it affects players physically and mentally, but for now, it can only mean more opportunity for drama in the immediate window.
We here at Windy City Gridiron decided to collaborate on our NFL preview this year in a special first. Of our ever-expanding talented staff, many of us contributed at least one anecdote about an element of the 2021 season. The final product is cobbled together below.
We hope you enjoy, and we wish you nothing but good tides and blessings as oblong balls are finally kicked off tees.
Erik Duerrwaechter: I’m throwing down the gauntlet and declaring the Chicago Bears will be much better than expected.
We have seen the Bears struggle due to poor play from their quarterbacks in the past two seasons. They are also 16-16 despite those hardships. I believe they will get better production from either of their top two guys — Andy Dalton and Justin Fields — with the latter having the potential to change this team’s complexion completely.
The defense has one serious question mark at cornerback. Jaylon Johnson is a stud, but it’s completely unknown if whoever starts adjacent from him will hold their own.
History is against the Green Bay Packers. No single team has ever gone 13-3 or better in three consecutive seasons. The closest to achieve that feat was the 1990s Bills - they went 13-3 in 1990 and 1991, before going 11-5 in 1992. Not to mention that there’s bad blood leftover between Aaron Rodgers and management, and the defense is in transition.
It’s not an impossible task for the Bears to take the NFC North crown.
Lester A. Wiltfong Jr.: The NFC East deserved the “NFC Least” jokes made at its expense a year ago after the Washington Football Team won the division with a 7-9 record, but I can see them building off that title in 2021 and repeating as division champs.
They have the best head coach in the division, Ron Rivera, and they may have the NFL’s best defense. Second-year pro Chase Young is a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate off the edge after a 7.5 sack rookie season. And the disruptiveness from defensive tackle Jonathan Allen really makes that defense go.
On offense, WFT will rely on the magical 38-year old arm of Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’ll be helped by an underrated offensive line and young playmakers like running back Antonio Gibson and receiver Terry McLaurin.
Their only real competition comes from the Dallas Cowboys, who were decimated by injuries a year ago, and may not have the defense to hang with Washington.
Bill Zimmerman: If you see any “NFL expert” pick a different team other than Tampa Bay to win this division, you no longer need to consider that person an “NFL expert.”
Sam Householder: This was, top to bottom, the most competitive division in the NFC last year and the only division in league with all the teams winning more than five games.
Will we see more of that this year? I think so, obviously. Though the Rams appear to be a juggernaut, don’t forget that Seattle won the West in 2020. San Francisco should also be improved: I’m not sure we talk enough about the coaching job Kyle Shanahan did a year ago to get to six wins with 10 games of C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens. And while I don’t trust Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray is very good, and Arizona has many quality pieces.
The class of this division is L.A. They’re on a Super Bowl-or-bust mission and as good as Russell Wilson and D.K. Metcalf were a year ago; I don’t know that Seattle has the complete roster to knock the Rams down.
Regardless, this division might beat itself up before January.
NFC Top Seed
Robert Zeglinski: The Rams are not your everyday run-of-the-mill good team.
Sure, they’re part of the recent class of the NFC — only the Saints (49) have won more regular-season games than the Rams (43) since Sean McVay took over in 2017. Yeah, maybe they are an offensive juggernaut, as McVay almost singlehandedly veers them away from the days when movies were, on a routine basis, seen in drive-thrus, and the forward pass was a luxury. There’s also always that looming Aaron Donald Question to be accounted for. A hefty question, I might add.
But their accomplishments have, for the most part, come at a handicap.
Now-departed Jared Goff was infamous for having plays called into his helmet while limiting the true potential of the L.A. offense. And Donald, as illustrious and dominant as he is, was a beautiful, elaborate chandelier hanging from an otherwise moldy ceiling of a defense.
Those aren’t issues to fret about anymore.
Matthew Stafford, a bona fide quarterback who doesn’t need help balancing on his legs, is in town, and the Rams have surrounded Donald with one of the NFL’s premier defenses. If the hometown Lakers once had the “Showtime” nickname, I can only imagine what a star-studded squad like this will earn from Hollywood in due time.
Erik Duerrwaechter: These are not your father’s Cleveland Browns.
One of the single biggest laughing stocks in the league has transformed itself into a legit playoff contender with a high ceiling for years to come. The only real question I see anywhere is Baker Mayfield. Even then, he’s a decent starting quarterback on a team absolutely loaded everywhere else.
Everything you can ask for is present. The Browns lead the way with top-tiered scouts, excellent cap management, and innovations in data analytics. Their offense is led by “The Union” upfront and a cornucopia of weapons at the skill positions. Their defense is downright scary. Not a single offensive line outside of Cleveland wants to handle the task of blocking Myles Garrett, Malik Jackson, and Jadeveon Clowney together.
Robert Schmitz: This one shouldn’t be much of a contest — the Bills are so stacked that I think they could win the division with Mitch Trubisky throwing the ball. The Patriots and Dolphins have solid rosters with quarterbacks who could easily surprise this year. But Brian Daboll and the Bills do too many things well offensively with a spiny defense behind them for me to look another way.
Boring, but you’ll keep your money picking the Bills.
Robert Zeglinski: Despite his coach and despite a situation that feels like it can combust at any given moment, I actually like the Jaguars’ future. 2021 No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, golden locks and golden arm and all, can be special. He can make the fun “Duval” chants of 2017 a regular occurrence. But Jacksonville isn’t ready for primetime yet, nor is most of what easily projects to be the NFL’s bottom-feeding division.
The Colts have a quarterback, last competent two seasons ago, who wasn’t even part of the greatest moment of his former team’s history, now obsessed with a decision that can derail Indy’s campaign at any moment because of his potential absence. The Texans, fresh off a sparkling four-win season, have an inept management team that couldn’t be more out of its wits with an abomination of a roster. With Houston sitting Deshaun Watson because of credible sexual assault allegations, name one active Texans player without a search engine. You can’t.
The Titans feel like a fun team that could punch above their weight class now and then. Having three physical freaks like Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, and A.J. Brown together does that. But they win this pathetic division by default. All they’ll have to do is show up to class on time and do their homework.
Lester A. Wiltfong Jr.: The Kansas City Chiefs haven’t had a losing season since 2012, and they’ve won the AFC West the last five seasons. I see no reason they won’t make that streak six straight. Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill already give them the most dangerous offensive trio in the NFL. In the off-season, they went out and added veteran offensive linemen Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney and drafted center Creed Humphrey. Kansas City’s defense was decent a year ago, and newcomer Jarran Reed should take some attention off Chris Jones.
The Chargers will be improved, but the Raiders will be middling again, and the Broncos are still a quarterback away from posing any threat.
AFC Top Seed
Robert Zeglinski: I think four teams have a case to make the Super Bowl out of the AFC this year: the Chiefs, Bills, Browns, and Ravens. All teams with dynamic rosters on both sides of the ball, great trenches, and a playmaker at quarterback.
But the gap between Kansas City and everyone else is still a gorge that Homer Simpson would find himself at the bottom of soon enough. The AFC’s first-round bye is theirs to lose.
Robert Schmitz: You would think this would be the Texans (and it very well could be) but let me lay out the case that Detroit, out of nowhere, walks away with this honor.
Every single year, two very different variables control most of your record’s outcome:
1) Your team’s talent level.
2) The schedule your team plays.
That second point is important because while the Texans are assuredly going to be the worst team in football, I think their schedule is a bit easier than Detroit’s. The Texans play plenty of nightmare opponents, yes, but they also have:
- The Jaguars (twice)
- The Panthers
- The Colts (twice)
- The Cardinals
- The Jets
That’s seven games that could truly go any direction due to rookie quarterback issues, potential organizational dumpster fires, Colts’ quarterback injuries, or whatever else may come into play. Even if they only came away with three wins in those games, that’s more than Detroit may get against a schedule full of blue-bloods and:
- The Bengals
- The Eagles
- The Bears (twice)?
- The Cardinals
The Lions get dramatically less scheduled respite than the Texans do. So, with early reports of Penei Sewell struggling and Jared Goff being Jared Goff under center, I have to bet against the ankle-biting Lions until they show me “a little somethin’ extra.”
Robert Zeglinski: The only thing I can see holding the Rams back from nabbing the league’s best record is complacency against their own division. But, unlike my colleagues, I don’t see the NFC West as a gauntlet. Los Angeles is in a comfortable position as not only the lone complete team but the best-coached squad. The ease with which they’ll cruise against their rivals in the Pacific Northwest, in Northern California, in Phoenix, will almost be shocking.
And with matchups against fellow heavyweights in the Buccaneers and Packers on the schedule, they’ll have every opportunity to make profound statements about who they are: a motivated, rejuvenated Death Star.
This is Sean McVay’s world, and we only happen to be paying him a reasonable rent.
Bill Zimmerman: I don’t see a reason why this defense won’t be one of the best in the league, and offensively Matthew Stafford will add another element to this team that Jared Goff simply couldn’t. Jared Goff was Sean McVay’s ventriloquist doll. Now that McVay has an actual quarterback that can process a defense, this team could be lethal. It’s tough to repeat in this league, and McVay and Stafford will show Arians and Brady the door this postseason.
Robert Schmitz: I love the Bills as much as anything, but I want the thoroughbred when it comes to picking champions. Coming off a Super Bowl berth, Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs aren’t done yet and will prove it across another phenomenal campaign.
Super Bowl Champion
Robert Zeglinski: I have never seen a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes.
Someone who makes playing the position so effortless, creative, and artful for observers and so daunting if you’re a defender. He continues to be in the perfect situation for his transcendent ability in Kansas City, on a loaded roster, with a freshly built wall of an offensive line that isn’t ready to stop winning now any time soon.
Yes, the AFC is better, very improved even. And yes, it’s more challenging than ever. But then again, so are the Chiefs.
Kansas City is the class of the NFL, and until proven otherwise, I see no reason to plop them off their well-earned mantel.