2021 NFL season: Way-too-early power rankings
If there’s ever anyone that would understand the phrase “We’re on to 2021,” it’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady.
After two decades playing for Bill Belichick, Brady is probably programmed to be preparing for the next season the second he leaves the field after a Super Bowl win, and that mindset likely didn’t change following the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl LV victory against the Kansas City Chiefs.
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It’s a good mentality to have, especially in a sport where fans are so focused on what’s next, rather than basking in a team’s past glory.
So, to follow in Brady’s own footsteps, we decided to set our sights on the 2021 NFL season, just a few weeks after the confetti was cleaned up after Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium.
Which teams will falter after a successful 2020 campaign? Which franchises could see their stocks rise the most heading into 2021? Who will reign supreme when the dust settles after Super Bowl LVI?
They’re all valid questions, and are ones that we looked to answer in our way-too-early power rankings for the 2021 NFL season:
10. Seattle Seahawks
In one of the more shocking developments following Super Bowl LV, the Seattle Seahawks and quarterback Russell Wilson seem to be operating under some hot water heading into the 2021 season.
But, as long as cooler heads prevail and the two sides realize how perfect they are for each other, the Seahawks should emerge as a top-10 team heading into the NFL’s new year.
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Give Wilson and his offense some help on the offensive line and solidify that defense in free agency, and the Seahawks could easily see themselves back in the playoff picture in the NFC. Get rid of him, and the Seahawks will quickly drop out of the top-10 conversation.
9. Arizona Cardinals
Unfortunately for the 10th-ranked team on this list, the NFC West is arguably the toughest division in the NFL heading into the 2021 season, and could see a fresh face at the top if all goes according to plan in Arizona.
The Arizona Cardinals, led by quarterback Kyler Murray, looked like a sleeper threat midway through the 2020 regular season, with Murray lighting up defenses in a variety of ways and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins gaining his footing in his new home.
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But, Murray’s mobility seemed to take a hit in the latter half of the year as he dealt with injuries, and the Cardinals found themselves on the outside looking in when the NFC playoff picture was set.
When the 2021 season starts, Murray and Hopkins will have had a full year to get acquainted, and outside linebacker Chandler Jones will have worked his way back from a season-ending injury.
As a result, the Cardinals should be able to supplant the Seahawks and make a name for themselves towards the top of the NFC West, and the NFC as a whole.
8. Tennessee Titans
The Indianapolis Colts are a much bigger threat in the AFC South after making a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback Carson Wentz. But, given how well the last meeting between these two teams went, the Tennessee Titans look like the favorites in the division heading into 2021.
After winning the AFC South in 2020, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry will need to up their game if they want to take that leap once more and advance to the AFC Championship for the second time in three years.
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With head coach Mike Vrabel at the helm, and a stinging loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs to motivate them, that elevation in expectations shouldn’t be an issue.
The Colts, along with the Urban Meyer-led Jacksonville Jaguars, could serve as wrinkles in the Titans’ plans for 2021, but at the moment, Vrabel’s bunch remains a major threat just a few weeks removed from Super Bowl LV.
7. Baltimore Ravens
When fans talked about the AFC North in 2020, a lot of the focus was on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ rollercoaster of a season, and the rise of the Cleveland Browns.
But, the Baltimore Ravens weren’t exactly a push-over, despite what many may have thought after their drop-off from a 14-2 record in 2019 and an MVP season from quarterback Lamar Jackson.
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Even in a “down year,” Jackson and the Ravens managed to finish in second in the AFC North with an 11-5 record, took down the fourth-seeded Titans in the Wild Card Round, and lost in a two-possession Divisional Round game against the Buffalo Bills that saw Jackson exit early due to injury.
The Steelers could still be a dangerous team in 2021 if Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t decline too much, and could thwart the Ravens’ hopes a bit with their strong defense. But, if the Ravens can build off a strong second half of the 2020 season, they should be right back in the conversation in 2021.
6. Los Angeles Rams
In arguably the most shocking turn of events in the weeks after the 2020 season’s conclusion, the Los Angeles Rams have emerged as one of the true contenders in the NFC, and have a real case as a top-five team in the entire league, as well.
The franchise made a major splash when it swapped quarterbacks with the Detroit Lions, sending the No. 1 pick from the 2016 NFL Draft in Jared Goff, along with some other draft capital, to Detroit in exchange for Matthew Stafford.
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While the organization doesn’t have a lot to work with as it relates to the NFL Draft for years to come, they proved in the 2020 offseason that they can get the job done with what they’ve got.
Just a few years removed from an appearance in Super Bowl LIII, the Rams managed to beat the NFC West champion Seahawks in the Wild Card Round with an injured Goff under center, thanks to a stellar performance from the Rams defense.
As long as Aaron Donald is back and healthy on the Rams’ defensive line, and the team’s secondary remains strong with Jalen Ramsey at the helm, Stafford’s presence should just make them a more well-rounded squad moving forward.
If that’s the case, they could roll to the top of the NFC West, and could make some serious noise in the postseason.
5. Cleveland Browns
Here we go again, right?
It seems like just yesterday that NFL fans were hopping on the Cleveland Browns bandwagon ahead of the 2019 season, after a star-making rookie campaign from quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Then, just as quickly as the hype built up, it fizzled out en route to a 6-10 record in 2019.
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A year later, the Browns performed like the team that fans expected them to be the year prior, finishing with an 11-5 record. That may have only been good enough for third place in the AFC North behind the Steelers and Ravens, but they were one win away from a top-three seed in the AFC side of the postseason bracket.
Give everyone another offseason to mature and learn from a successful season that had its turbulent moments, and the Browns will be a dangerous team in the AFC.
It’ll be a fight to get to the top of the AFC North, but if there’s any team in that division that is best suited to make that run, it’s the Browns.
4. Green Bay Packers
The 2021 offseason is going to be among the most pivotal in franchise history for the Green Bay Packers, as the championship window with quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the helm continues to close year-by-year.
The team caught some flack last year for its performance in the 2020 NFL Draft, specifically for drafting Jordan Love as a backup quarterback instead of offensive help for Rodgers to work with.
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But, it didn’t seem to bother Green Bay too much, evident by their 13-3 record that earned them the top seed in the NFC.
As great as that might seem, it didn’t end well for the Packers, as they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship on their home turf.
The biggest threat to the Packers in the NFC in 2021 is likely those same Buccaneers, so they shouldn’t have much of an issue getting back to the top of the NFC North.
But, they need to make some strong moves to bolster their offense if they want to capitalize on the final few years of Rodgers’ prime and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2010 season.
3. Buffalo Bills
Similar to the Browns, who would’ve thought that the Buffalo Bills would be a top-tier contender in the AFC if you had asked even a few years ago.
As crazy as it may seem, the Bills have built up a system that should lead to years of success in the AFC East, and could easily find themselves at the top of the AFC if they play up to their full potential in 2021.
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If it weren’t for arguably the play of the year, a last-second Hail Mary from Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, the Bills would’ve won their last 10 games of the 2020 regular season.
Yes, they’ll have a tougher schedule to deal with in 2021 as a result of winning their division, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see them go 13-3 for the second straight season, and potentially put themselves in the conversation for homefield advantage in the 2021 NFL Playoffs.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You may think it’s Tom Brady that makes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the second-best team in the NFL heading into the 2021 season. While he definitely helps, he’s not what’s keeping them at the top of the board when evaluating teams after their Super Bowl LV win in February.
Brady will be 44 years old when the 2021 season gets underway in September, and his age showed on numerous occasions throughout his 2020 campaign. But, he did just enough to keep the Buccaneers in the hunt, and lead them through a tough stretch in the NFC side of the playoff bracket.
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But, what made the Buccaneers so special in 2020, and what will make them the biggest threat in the NFC in 2021, is their defense.
The Bucs’ secondary is arguably the best in the NFL, and their front seven’s ability to put pressure on an opposing quarterback is one of the biggest reasons for their win in Super Bowl LV against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr., cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and company may be young, but they looked like defensive superstars when they needed to against some all-time quarterbacks in Mahomes, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and more.
All of those younger players can only get better as they enter their second or third years in the league, and the franchise still has some capital to work with in the 2021 NFL Draft, as well.
Brady just needs to limit any mistakes and let his high-caliber receiving corps do the work in 2021, and give his defense enough of a cushion to help the team roll to the top of the NFC South for the first time since 2007.
If they can do that, then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to perform like they did in the 2020 postseason by the time the 2021 playoffs get underway.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
A Super Bowl repeat is always a tough task, let alone when you’re the team with arguably the most hype out of any defending Super Bowl champion since the 2004 New England Patriots.
Now, with all of the pressure off of their shoulders after their loss to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, it seems like fans are about to see Patrick Mahomes and company go on a tear to start the 2021 season.
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Mahomes was clearly not at full strength in the second half of the Chiefs’ 2020 playoff run, as he battled both a concussion and a foot injury that seemed to impact him more than he would ever let on.
But, with a full offseason to regroup and recover, Kansas City should have its moneymaker back under center at his peak physical performance by September of 2021.
If that’s the case, then the AFC will likely have to listen to the same piece of advice it should’ve in 2020: if the Chiefs’ train is coming down the tracks, you better get out of the way.
After a 14-2 record in 2020, which included a Week 17 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers where Mahomes and other starters were on the bench, it seems like the lowest-end prediction for 2021 should be a 13-3 record.
They should cruise towards the top of the AFC, and could find themselves staring at a familiar foe from Tampa Bay when Super Bowl LVI kicks off at SoFi Stadium in February of 2022.
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