2021 NFL Preview & Prognostications

Just a few days ago I was pretty excited about the return of football with capacity crowds and business as usual, but now The Sickness has grabbed headlines again and it seems as though that sense of normalcy could be in jeopardy. At the moment no sweeping proclamations have been made, but stay tuned. In the meantime we shall proceed.

The biggest news outside of Covid related chaos is the NFL’s expansion to a 17 game regular season. To achieve that teams played one less pre-season game, so the only people really affected are the fringe players trying to make a team’s roster. There are always old faces in new places, teams with new coaches, and overhyped rookies looking to become the next Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Randy Moss, or Lawrence Taylor, and we’ll have a much better idea in a few months how all of that might shake out. For now it’s all guesswork, but atleast it’s fun, and I am glad that I feel encouraged enough to bring back this preview after a one year hiatus. As always the team’s record from the previous season is in parentheses, with the predicted record for this season following it. And remember…no wagering. I am not a professional and most of the time I’m not very good at this.

North

Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1) 10-7

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) 10-7

Cleveland Browns (11-5) 9-8

Baltimore Ravens (11-5) 8-9

I think Bengals’ QB Joe Burrow is the real deal, and he’s going to surprise a lot of people. The Browns might be a bit of a surprise too, but I don’t believe it will be in a good way. Everyone assuming they are the presumed division champs will likely be wrong. Am I undervaluing the Ravens?? Perhaps. But every team can’t have a winning record and make the playoffs, and in a highly competitive division my vibe is that Baltimore will run into some problems and fall short of expectations (actually those problems have already began with the loss of starting tailback JK Dobbins to a torn ACL).

East

Buffalo Bills (13-3) 11-6

New York Jets (2-14) 8-9

New England Patriots (7-9) 8-9

Miami Dolphins (10-6) 7-10

The Bills have to be considered amongst the favorites in the conference. To be honest I thought QB Josh Allen was a bad choice as the 7th overall pick in the draft a few years ago, but he’s doing a pretty good job of proving me wrong thus far. There’s no reason to believe Buffalo won’t dominate a division that is a mess otherwise. I think the Jets may have finally found a decent quarterback, and they also added some other pieces on both sides of the ball that make me think they won’t be the dumpster fire we’ve come to expect. The Patriots aren’t the same team without Tom Brady, and I’m not as confident in their rookie signal caller Mac Jones as I am in New York’s rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. The Dolphins might take a step back this season, but I hope they aren’t dumb enough to give up on second year QB Tua Tagavailoa. I believe they are building a solid team around him and good things are ahead, but it might take another year to gel.

West

Los Angeles Chargers (7-9) 11-6

Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) 10-7

Las Vegas Raiders (8-8) 7-10

Denver Broncos (5-11) 7-10

No one has been talking about the Chargers this offseason, and that might be a good thing. I always prefer to sneak up on people rather than have the pressure of lofty expectations. QB Justin Herbert acquitted himself quite well in his rookie campaign and there’s no reason to expect anything less this year. The Raiders & Broncos aren’t going to be any better than they were a year ago. I expect both teams to utilize multiple quarterbacks and need their defense to lead them to some victories. The stunner here is the KC Chiefs. Most talking heads will consider them legit Super Bowl contenders, but I think they’ll lose a dogfight for the division, sneak into the playoffs as a wildcard, and be watching the Super Bowl at home like the rest of us.

South

Tennessee Titans (11-5) 12-5

Indianapolis Colts (11-5) 11-6

Houston Texans (4-12) 5-12

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15) 5-12

The Colts acquired QB Carson Wentz from Philly in the offseason, but will that do them any good?? Wentz can’t seem to stay healthy, and at the moment it’s a tossup as to whether he’ll be ready to go Week 1. That leaves the door open for Tennessee. RB Derrick Henry is a stud & receiver Julio Jones came over from Atlanta a few months ago. He’s 32 years old, but with AJ Brown in the lineup Jones won’t have the pressure of being the top wideout. Replacing tight end Jonnu Smith won’t be easy, and that may be the chink in the armor of the Titans’ offense. I’m not sure what to make of the Titans’ defense, although they did add former Steelers’ linebacker Bud Dupree. Watch time of possession in their games. I think they’ll dominate that and win a bunch of low scoring grinders. Everyone has heard more than enough about the Deshaun Watson situation in Houston and there are still a ton of questions. Will they trade him?? Will he be suspended for a big chunk of the season?? If Tyrod Taylor takes most of the snaps I think the Texans are in for a long season. I don’t have much faith in the Jags either, although I think new head coach Urban Meyer will build around rookie QB Trevor Lawrence and have his team in the playoff conversation a year or two from now, but losing first round draft pick Travis Etienne in the preseason doesn’t bode well for this season.

Playoff Teams: Bengals, Bills, Chargers, Titans, Colts, Chiefs, Steelers

AFC Champion: Tennessee Titans

 

East

Washington Redskins (7-9) 10-7

Dallas Cowboys (6-10) 9-8

New York Giants (6-10) 7-10

Philadelphia Eagles (4-11-1) 5-12

I’m still not buying the Cowboys as legit Super Bowl contenders, although I believe QB Dak Prescott will be just fine returning from the ankle injury that torpedoed his season last year. I suppose the Giants could surprise me and be much better than they were a season ago, but my vibe is that they are just kind of treading water. It blows my mind to see how far the Eagles have fallen since winning the Super Bowl less than five years ago. Can Jalen Hurts make the leap from excellent college quarterback to solid NFL starter?? I think Philadelphia has a bunch of very good players on both sides of the ball, but they have lacked cohesion the past few seasons and I’m not sure that’s going to change. That leaves Washington as the favorite. Is their enough FitzMagic left in the 38 year old signal caller now playing for his ninth NFL team?? Having an elite defense led by Chase Young, Montez Sweat, & Landon Collins will certainly help.

West

Arizona Cardinals (8-8) 11-6

Los Angeles Rams (10-6) 10-7

Seattle Seahawks (12-4) 9-8

San Francisco 49ers (6-10) 7-10

This race is going to be fun to watch. Arizona & the Rams both made moves this summer, and whether or not they work out well one has to give them credit for not standing pat. Los Angeles thinks they have a better chance of advancing in the playoffs with 33 year old veteran QB Matthew Stafford than with 2016 top overall pick Jared Goff, who they shipped to Detroit. I think it might be a positive chain of events (eventually) for both guys. The Rams lost starting RB Cam Akers to injury but traded for former Patriot Sony Michel so I don’t believe the team will be negatively affected all that much. The defense, led by All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, should be stout. Having said that, I am giving a slight edge to the Cardinals, who added receivers DeAndre Hopkins & AJ Green and have a defensive unit featuring newly acquired defensive end JJ Watt, first round LB Zaven Collins, and a very talented secondary. Seattle has won 10+ games seven out of the past eight years and Russell Wilson is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but I feel like they’ll drop off just enough to miss the playoffs. ‘Frisco needs to decide on a quarterback, and once they do that I think they can get back on track, but that might be a couple of years from now.

North

Minnesota Vikings (7-9) 9-8

Green Bay Packers (13-3) 9-8

Chicago Bears (8-8) 6-11

Detroit Lions (5-11) 1-16

Or as ESPN’s Chris Berman used to call it, The Norris Division. I am sure I don’t have to rehash the Packers/Aaron Rodgers drama that has dominated offseason news, but I think it might be just enough of a distraction to cost them the division. The Lions have stunk most of my nearly five decades on the planet and I don’t think that will suddenly change in 2021. Much like the 49ers the Bears have a quarterback conundrum. Conventional wisdom says the smart thing to do is start either journeyman Andy Dalton or former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles under center, but we all know the pressure from fans & the media will lead to rookie Justin Fields being handed the keys to the kingdom. That decision will likely pay off down the road, but it creates chaos right now. So why am I so high on the Vikings?? I don’t know to be honest. Kirk Cousins isn’t spectacular, but he can be a very good quarterback at times and he has solid weapons at receiver & running back. The secondary could be one of the best in the NFL, and guys like Danielle Hunter & Anthony Barr should disrupt opposing offenses often. It won’t be pretty, but I think the Norris goes to the Vikes by a nose.


South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) 13-4

New Orleans Saints (12-4) 8-9

Atlanta Falcons (4-12) 6-11

Carolina Panthers (5-11) 5-12

I’ve stopped waiting for Tom Brady to fall of a cliff. That whole regimen of 25 glasses of water per day, fruit smoothies, fish, and lots of veggies apparently works because he proved a year ago that he deserves much more credit for the Patriots “dynasty” than Bill Belichick. I don’t expect much to change this season, and it helps that the rest of the division will probably struggle. New Orleans has named Jameis Winston as their new starting QB after the retirement of Drew Brees, and Winston is going to have to prove himself before I start to believe in him. I don’t anticipate much improvement by the Falcons or Panthers. Carolina must stop opposing defenses from stacking the box to stifle premier RB Christian McCaffery, and for that to happen former Jets first rounder Sam Darnold will need to finally live up to his potential. Atlanta got rid of receiver Julio Jones and I’m just not impressed by what remains.

Playoff Teams: Redskins, Cardinals, Vikings, Bucs, Cowboys, Rams, Packers

NFC Champion: Green Bay Packers

 

Tennessee Titans 24

Green Bay Packers 19

Top Five Picks in 2022 NFL Draft

1 Detroit Lions

2 Houston Texans

3 Jacksonville Jaguars

4 Carolina Panthers

5 Philadelphia Eagles

 

2019 College Football Pre-Season Top 25

First things first…I am indeed aware that the college football season begins tonight when the Miami Hurricanes visit the Florida Gators. I usually get these rankings published earlier in August, but…well, that didn’t happen. You’re not interested in my excuses and I’m not really into making any, so we’ll just go with the flow. I don’t think the Canes’ nor the Gators will factor significantly into how things play out, so it’s all good. We know that out of 130 FBS football teams only 65 “power” conference teams (including “independent” Notre Dame) have any shot at the national title, and this season it feels like it’s a ten team race at best. As a fan I am still entertained by watching games, but I have to admit that the foregone conclusion that the playoff has become sort of harshes my football buzz. I need underdogs. I need upsets. I need some semblance of parity. I need a little variety from year to year. One of the charms of college football has always been that each season players graduate and new players come in, which means that every year is different…except nowadays its seems like nothing much changes. There have always been dominant programs, but there were still cycles wherein some teams would rise for a couple of years while others fell off a bit. That yin & yang was part of the fun. I hope that happens this season. I hope a team or two that everyone expects to win a lot of games unexpectedly loses a few. I hope a few teams that no one sees coming win 10+ games and challenge for conference titles. I hope…but I won’t hold my breath. Still, it’s nice to have football back.

 

 

 

25        Virginia Tech

Last Season:     6-7

Key Games:     10/5 @Miami, 11/2 @Notre Dame, 11/23 vs. Pitt

This season will go one of two ways for the Hokies. Either they’ll have another miserable losing season and head coach Justin Fuentes will be on the hot seat…or they’ll rebound with 8 or 9 wins and have a legit shot to win a conference title in a rather weak ACC. Obviously I lean toward the latter scenario.

 

 

24        Auburn

Last Season:     8-5

Key Games:     8/31 vs. Oregon, 9/21 @Texas A&M, 11/16 vs. Georgia, 11/30 vs. Alabama

Here’s the thing about the SEC. Atleast half the conference is going to get some attention from the talking heads early in the season because…well, that’s just how it is. Heck, I have five SEC teams in these rankings, and that’s me being conservative. But logic dictates that only a couple of those teams will really be elite. The rest will either fall flat & have disappointing seasons or fall short a few times and end up with a solid 8 or 9 win season. I think the Tigers will land in the latter category. The season opener against Oregon should be a good barometer of what we can expect.

 

 

23        Michigan State

Last Season:     7-6

Key Games:     9/14 vs. Arizona St., 10/5 @Ohio St., 10/12 @Wisconsin, 10/26 vs. Penn St., 11/16 @Michigan

Trips to Columbus & Ann Arbor don’t bode well for the Spartans Big Ten title hopes, but I believe they’ll rebound from a subpar 2018 and win nine games.

 

 

22        Central Florida

Last Season:     12-1

Key Games:     9/14 vs. Stanford, 9/21 @Pitt

The Knights hadn’t lost a game in two years until they ran into the LSU Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl. Do I expect more of the same this year?? Maybe. Out-of-conference games against Stanford & Pitt are important and could make a huge difference. It’s probably too much to ask UCF to go undefeated again, but I think a ten win season deserves some respect.

 

 

21        Army

Last Season:     11-2

Key Games:     9/7 @Michigan, 12/14 vs. Navy

Very few football fans pay attention to the Black Knights until the very end of the season when the Army-Navy Game has the spotlight all to itself, but Army has gone 21-5 in the past two years, which is quite impressive. I don’t think they’ll go into Ann Arbor and pull off an upset, but I don’t believe another ten win season is far-fetched.

 

 

20        Northwestern

Last Season:             9-5                             

Key Games:              8/31 @Stanford, 9/21 vs. Michigan St., 9/28 @Wisconsin, 10/5 @Nebraska, 10/18 vs. Ohio St., 10/26 vs. Iowa

Perhaps it’s the purple uniforms, or maybe it’s the fact that they were perennial underdogs when I was growing up but ten win seasons have now become fairly normal in Evanston. It might be the tenacity of former linebacker & current head coach Pat Fitzgerald. For some reason I have a soft spot for the Wildcats. This prediction could be an epic disaster since they’ve got to travel to Palo Alto to begin the season and also have road trips to Madison & Lincoln. However, if Northwestern can gut out a few upsets and win eight games I may be onto something.

 

 

19        Fresno State

Last Season:     12-2

Key Games:     8/31 @USC, 9/7 @Minnesota, 10/26 vs. Colorado St.

I’m a bit sad because my work schedule has changed yet again and I have to be in bed super early on Friday & Saturday nights so I can get up at 5am. That means that for the first time in many years I won’t get to watch hardly any late night west coast games. The Pac 12 gets all of the attention, but don’t forget about the Mountain West. It has become standard for Boise St. to get the infinitesimal amount of love left over for the MWC, but I believe the Bulldogs will emerge as the better team this year.

 

 

18        Michigan

Last Season:     10-3

Key Games:     9/21 @Wisconsin, 10/5 vs. Iowa, 10/19 @Penn St., 10/26 vs. Notre Dame, 11/16 vs. Michigan St., 11/0 vs. Ohio St.

Are patience wearing thin where Jim Harbaugh is concerned?? Possibly, but I still think he’ll ditch Michigan before Michigan cans him…and neither scenario may ever happen. This isn’t the early 20th century anymore…everyone outside of the state of Alabama understands how difficult it is to win a national championship and knows it isn’t the only barometer for success. Harbaugh has won ten games in 3 out of 4 seasons leading the maize & Blue, which is pretty darn good. The one thing he has to do to quell any sort of rebellion: beat Ohio St. Now is the time. This is the year. The Wolverines could lose 3 or 4 other games and it won’t matter if they defeat the Buckeyes in The Big House in November.

 

 

17        Arizona State

Last Season:     7-6

Key Games:     9/14 @Michigan St., 10/19 @Utah, 11/9 vs. USC, 11/23 vs. Oregon

I’m a big fan of Sun Devils’ head coach Herm Edwards. He might be a better talking head than head coach, but I saw some flashes a year ago that leads me to believe that this is a team that could pull off a couple of upsets and sneak into the rankings.

 

 

16        Texas A&M

Last Season:     9-4

Key Games:     9/7@Clemson, 9/21 vs. Auburn, 10/12 vs. Alabama, 11/23 @Georgia, 11/30 @LSU

No team has more chances to affect the National Championship picture than the Aggies. All five key games noted above involve potential playoff contenders, so A&M has a unique opportunity to be the ultimate spoiler…or be embarrassingly inept. Entering Year 2 of the Jimbo Fisher era I believe they’ll continue to build a solid foundation that will eventually lead to playoff appearances in the near future.

 

 

15        Stanford

Last Season:     9-4

Key Games:     9/21 vs. Oregon, 10/5 vs. Washington, 11/16 @Washington St., 11/30 vs. Notre Dame

The Pac 12 is stacked, and it’ll be really interesting to see which team(s) emerge to lead the pack. Stanford has its biggest games at home, and that could lead to good things.

 

 

14        Nebraska

Last Season:     4-8

Key Games:     9/28 vs. Ohio St., 11/16 vs. Wisconsin, 11/29 vs. Iowa

I’m really going out on a limb. After back to back four win seasons the Cornhuskers enter Year 2 of the Scott Frost era, which means that noticeable improvement is expected.  So does that mean going from losing seasons to bowl eligibility?? Or does it mean bursting back onto the scene with 8-10 wins?? The biggest games are at home, and just one upset might mean a huge turnaround for the program.

 

 

13        LSU

Last Season:     10-3

Key Games:     9/7 @Texas, 10/12 vs. Florida, 10/26 vs. Auburn, 11/9 @Alabama, 11/30 vs. Texas A&M

Ed Orgeron now seems to be firmly entrenched as the Bayou Bengals’ head coach, and that kind of stability provides a real sense of freedom for a program. A split against the four noted conference foes would be fantastic, but an early season non-conference battle at Texas could be the key to LSU’s entire season.

 

 

12        Utah

Last Season:     9-5

Key Games:     8/29 @BYU, 9/20 @USC, 9/28 vs. Washington St., 10/19 vs. Arizona St., 11/2 @Washington

Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to figuring out the Pac 12, but the Utes seem to be getting a lot of love. Anyone who has spent any time reading sports related content here at The Manofesto will recall my affection for BYU, which is why I consider that an important in-state contest for Utah even though BYU has only won eleven total games the past two years. I’m not sure what to think about Southern Cal or the two Washington teams…all three could make these rankings look silly a few months from now. One thing is for sure…the Utes are going to need to have some big road wins to have a successful season.

 

 

11        Iowa State

Last Season:     8-5

Key Games:     9/14 vs. Iowa, 11/9 @Oklahoma, 11/16 vs. Texas

Everybody loves to yap about Oklahoma & Texas, but Big 12 fans know not to sleep on the Cyclones. They’ve won eight games in each of the last two seasons, and with QB Brock Purdy entering his sophomore year I think bigger things await. I am predicting that they’ll upset either the Sooners or the Longhorns and finish third in the conference.

 

 

10        Wisconsin

Last Season:     8-5

Key Games:     9/21 vs. Michigan, 10/12 vs. Michigan St., 10/26 @Ohio St.

The bottom line is this…the Badgers have to upset one of the two Michigan teams because going into The Horseshoe & beating Ohio St. in October might be too much to expect. Otherwise, I expect a solid 8-10 win season, which is par for the course.

 

 

9          Southern California

Last Season:     5-7

Key Games:     9/7 vs. Stanford, 9/20 vs. Utah, 9/28 @Washington, 10/12 @Notre Dame, 11/2 vs. Oregon

I’m doing it…I’m rolling the dice on the Trojans!! I’m not sure what the heck happened a year ago, but it was USC’s first losing season in eighteen years. Was it an anomaly?? Or was 2018 indicative of a backward slide that will continue for the foreseeable future?? Obviously I’m betting on the former, and in the words of Billy Joel I’ll walk away a fool or a king.

 

 

8          Texas

Last Season:     10-4

Key Games:     9/7 vs. LSU, 10/12 vs. Oklahoma, 11/16 @Iowa St.

The long road back to relevancy is about as complete as one can expect nowadays…all they need to do now is maintain consistency. A losing or even mediocre season now would be disastrous for a program that’s taken almost a decade to rebuild. Most “experts” expect the Big 12 to come down to Texas & Oklahoma, so the Red River Shootout in mid-October will be a huge game, but the Longhorns shouldn’t overlook Iowa St. just a month later.

 

 

7          Notre Dame

Last Season:     12-1

Key Games:     9/21 @Georgia, 10/12 vs. USC, 10/26 @Michigan, 11/30 @Stanford

Coming off a playoff season expectations are high in South Bend, but the schedule is brutal. One slip will knock them out of contention, and with big road games at Georgia, Michigan, & Stanford I’d be stunned to see the Irish go undefeated.

 

 

6          Ohio State

Last Season:    13-1

Key Games:     9/28 @Nebraska, 10/5 vs. Michigan St., 10/26 vs. Wisconsin, 11/23 vs. Penn St., 11/30 @ Michigan

Ohio St. is a football factory that recruits elite athletes and churns out winning seasons as easily as you & I change socks in the morning. However, the dividing line for such teams is whether they win 9/10 games and finish highly ranked or go undefeated and contend for a playoff spot. I don’t think there will be a significant dropoff under new head coach Ryan Day, and perhaps it is even positive for the program to be rid of the various distractions that accompanied former coach Urban Meyer. However, I don’t think you’ll see the Buckeyes in the playoff, and they might even suffer a loss to Michigan.

 

 

5             Oregon

Last Season:     9-4

Key Games:     8/31 @Auburn, 9/21 @Stanford, 10/19 @Washington, 11/2 @USC

Mario Cristobal started his reign as the Ducks’ head coach with a nine win season, so now anticipation is at a fever pitch in Eugene. A non-conference battle with Auburn to kick things off is a neutral site game at The Palace in Dallas. I don’t necessarily think that game will make or break either team’s season, but the winner will certainly be headed on an upward trajectory. I’m not sure what to make of the Pac 12 quite yet, but if Oregon can emerge from the pack they just might find themselves in playoff contention.

 

 

4             Alabama

Last Season:     14-1

Key Games:     10/12 @Texas A&M, 11/9 vs. LSU, 11/30 @Auburn

I don’t know about y’all, but ‘Bama has become a team I love to see lose. I’m just really over the whole thing. I know I should root for fellow West Virginian Nick Saban, but I just can’t. I’m an underdog kind of guy and The Tide has evolved into The Evil Empire. However, a year ago I opined that Alabama might have to lose as many as three games for the powers-that-be to leave them out of the playoff. We know for sure that they don’t need to win the SEC or even play in the title game. So here is how I see it going down. I think A&M and LSU will both provide legit tests for ‘Bama, but they’ll go into the SEC Championship ranked #1 or #2 in the country, lose the title game to Georgia, and still make the playoff.

 

 

3          Oklahoma

Last Season:     12-2

Key Games:     10-12 vs. Texas, 11/9 vs. Iowa St., 11/30 @Oklahoma St.

Sooners’ head coach Lincoln Riley…at just 35 years old…has made a believer out of me. Two straight 12 win seasons. Two consecutive Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks. With former Alabama QB Jalen Hurts transferring in to lead the offense I see no reason to believe that Oklahoma won’t win the Red River Shootout and claim another conference title. The Big 12 doesn’t get as much respect as the other “power” conferences, and it would probably be easy for the playoff committee to squeeze the Sooners out…but I don’t believe that’ll happen this season.

 

 

2          Georgia

Last Season:     11-3

Key Games:     9/21 vs. Notre Dame, 11/2 vs. Florida, 11/16 @Auburn, 11/23 vs. Texas A&M

Beating Notre Dame in September is an absolute must for the Bulldogs’ playoff hopes, but fortunately it’s a home game. I’m not buying into any Florida hype, and by late November I think tough schedules will have taken their toll on Auburn and A&M. I also believe Georgia will win the SEC Championship. I would much rather see a Clemson-Georgia National Championship versus any matchup involving Alabama.

 

 

1          Clemson

Last Season:     15-0

Key Games:     9/7 vs. Texas A&M

Champion wrestler Ric Flair used to say “to be The Man you’ve got to beat The Man”, and until someone steps up & knocks the Tigers from their perch there’s no other choice for the #1 spot. When I look at the schedule it looks like A&M is the only legit threat they face in the regular season, and the playoff committee hasn’t penalized Clemson in the past for the relative weakness of the ACC so it would be inconsistent to do so now. Most “experts” seem to recognize that Clemson is on a whole other level at the moment, and QB Trevor Lawrence is special. He’s my favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.