2021 B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Week 1?

NFL StaffContributor ISeptember 7, 2021

2021 B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Week 1?

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    Bleacher Report

    After months of team-building, training camp and a now-shorter preseason, it's time for NFL teams to start playing games that count. On Thursday evening, the 2021 NFL season will kick off with the Dallas Cowboys facing off against the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    There's plenty we know about the season to come. We know that the Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs are primed to take a run at another Super Bowl appearance. We also know that the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans are the front-runners to earn the first overall pick in the 2022 draft.

    However, there's also a lot we don't know.

    We don't know what a change at quarterback will mean for the New England Patriots. Or if the Miami Dolphins are ready to take the next step and vie for a playoff spot. Or if a rebuilt defense will make the Cleveland Browns a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

    We're about to find out, though.

    As will be the case every week this season, Bleacher Report NFL Analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski have gathered to sift through all the knowns and unknowns and slot the league's teams from worst to first.

    It's no surprise who starts the 2021 season in those spots. But there are plenty of surprises in between.

32. Houston Texans

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Jacksonville

    In Week 1, the Houston Texans will host a Jacksonville Jaguars team that went 1-15 last year.

    It'll probably be their best shot of notching a win this season.

    With star quarterback Deshaun Watson unlikely ever to play another snap for the Texans, first-year head coach David Culley will be guiding the most talent-bereft roster in the NFL. A Tyrod Taylor-led offense isn't scaring anyone. The defense has inside linebacker Zach Cunningham, and that's about it.

    There are only three games this season in which a Texans victory wouldn't be a sizable upset: the two AFC South tilts with the Jags and a Week 12 home date with the New York Jets. Other than that, the odds aren't great for Houston picking up a victory.

    When 3-14 seems like your ceiling, it's going to be a long season. And make no mistake, it's fixing to be a depressing year in Houston.

31. Detroit Lions

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. San Francisco

    Stop me if you've heard this before: The Detroit Lions are rebuilding.

    The problem is that the Lions are starting this latest rebuild without much ammunition.

    Detroit got two first-round picks when it traded Matthew Stafford away for Jared Goff, but it also took a massive step backward at the game's most important position. The offense has the least firepower in the league. The defense has a couple pieces, but it isn't scaring anyone.

    New head coach Dan Campbell can preach toughness and kneecap-biting until he's Honolulu blue in the face. But the 2021 Lions are terrible.

    "On some level, it's bizarrely impressive that the Lions have managed to be this consistently awful," Davenport said. "Their 14 wins over the last three seasons combined are going to look like the good old days compared to what's coming. At this point, bottoming out and landing the No. 1 pick in 2022 is the best thing that could happen to them."

30. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Houston

    After a rocky start to the preseason, Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars offense got it going in their final tune-up. The 2021 No. 1 overall pick completed 11 of 12 passes for 139 yards and two scores against the Dallas Cowboys.

    Although rookie running back Travis Etienne already went down with a season-ending foot injury, Lawrence still has plenty of talent around him at wide receiver and in the backfield. And given that the Jaguars followed up a Week 1 win over the Colts last year with 15 consecutive losses, they don't have anywhere to go but up. 

    But whether it's along the offensive line or on the defense, the Jaguars still have some major areas of concern. New head coach Urban Meyer's transition from the broadcast booth to an NFL sideline hasn't been devoid of controversy either.

    The Jags should be better in 2021, but significantly better is far from a sure thing.

    "Trevor Lawrence has a long season ahead of him," Sobleski said. "Like almost every other No. 1 overall pick before him, he's joining one of the league's worst teams. Jacksonville's offensive front is shaky at best. The unit lacks standout offensive weapons. And Etienne now can't help his former Clemson teammate, either."

29. New York Jets

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Carolina

    In his first preseason, New York Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson looked the part of an NFL starter. He was accurate and poised while displaying a nice rapport with top wideout Corey Davis.

    Given that the Jets have been looking for a franchise quarterback for roughly a half-century, Wilson's solid preseason is a welcome sight. But major problems have popped up on the other side of the ball.

    The Jets' biggest free-agent addition, edge-rusher Carl Lawson, suffered a torn Achilles in mid-August that will sideline him for the season. With linebacker Jarrad Davis also on the shelf, they'll likely roll out a rookie making the switch from safety (Hamsah Nasrideen) as a starter.

    Will the Jets improve upon their 2-14 record from last season? Quite possibly.

    Are they still going to finish last in the AFC East? Absolutely.

28. Atlanta Falcons

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Philadelphia

    The 2021 Atlanta Falcons have roughly one thing in common with the team that blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI: quarterback Matt Ryan.

    The Falcons traded longtime No. 1 wideout Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans in June. They also have a new head coach in Arthur Smith and a number of new faces on both sides of the ball.

    Even with Jones gone, Ryan still has ample passing-game weapons. Calvin Ridley should slide in as his top target, and the Falcons spent the No. 4 overall pick on tight end Kyle Pitts, making him the highest-drafted player at his position in NFL history.

    But an offensive line ranked 24th in the league by Pro Football Focus is a major question mark, as is a defense that allowed the fourth-most yards per game in the league last year.

    "The Falcons should be able to score some points this year," Davenport said. "But my confidence level in their ability to stop opponents from doing the same with impunity is nonexistent. It's shaping up to be a long season in Atlanta, followed by tough questions about Ryan's future with the team."

    "There's just no reason to believe this team will be any better," Gagnon added. "Ryan peaked years ago, and now he's lost a Hall of Fame receiver. Pitts could become a star, but tight ends usually need time to develop in the NFL. The Falcons didn't get any better elsewhere, either. They're stuck in neutral."

27. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Atlanta

    Three-and-a-half years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles won Super Bowl LII. But given the current state of the franchise, it feels like it was Super Bowl XXII.

    The head coach who guided the Eagles to that magical upset of the New England Patriots? Fired in January. The quarterbacks who led the team to a 13-3 record that year? In Chicago and Indianapolis now.

    The Eagles are Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts' team now, which makes it hard to get excited about them.

    Hurts showed a few flashes last year as a rookie, but he completed only 52 percent of his passes. Given the Eagles' reported interest in Deshaun Watson, it appears as though they aren't sold on Hurts long-term.

    Rookie DeVonta Smith gives the wideout corps a boost, but it's still easily the weakest in the NFC East. A defense that was once one of the league's best finished 19th in yards allowed last season.

    Don't expect the Eagles to go on another magical run in 2021.

26. Carolina Panthers

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. New York Jets

    The first year of the post-Cam Newton era for the Carolina Panthers didn't go so well. After one lackluster season from Teddy Bridgewater, they hit the reset button at quarterback.

    The looming question is whether it did them any good.

    Per Anthony Rizzuti of Panthers Wire, Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady insisted that the switch to Sam Darnold under center is a big step in the right direction.

    "I have something with him," Brady said. "I'm confident in Sam. I feel like he has a great grasp of the offense right now."

    Darnold largely struggled during his first three NFL seasons with the New York Jets. The 2018 No. 3 overall pick averaged 13 interceptions per season, has a mediocre career passer rating of 78.6 and has won only 13 of his 38 starts.

    The odds of a major turnaround this year in Charlotte aren't good.

25. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Minnesota

    There is cause for at least some optimism in the Queen City as the Bengals prepare to open the 2021 season against the Minnesota Vikings.

    Quarterback Joe Burrow is back from the ACL tear that cut his rookie year short. The addition of wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase gives the Bengals an impressive array of skill-position talent, at least on paper. And they took significant steps to bolster their leaky offensive line in both free agency and the 2021 draft.

    However, that line remains an area of concern. So does a defense that surrendered the seventh-most yards in the league last year. Cincy also has the misfortune of playing in a loaded AFC North that put three teams in the playoffs last season.

    Are the Bengals better? Quite possibly.

    Are they good enough to contend for a playoff berth? Not yet.

24. New York Giants

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Denver

    After a disappointing 2020 season, the New York Giants were one of the league's more aggressive teams in free agency. They doled out big contracts to the likes of wide receiver Kenny Golladay and cornerback Adoree' Jackson, who should help to bolster their offense and defense, respectively.

    However, their offensive line is such a disaster that it might prevent them from contending in the NFC East.

    After allowing double-digit sacks as a rookie, tackle Andrew Thomas was a turnstile again in the preseason. Veteran tackle Nate Solder, who opted out of the 2020 season, was no better when he last played in 2019. PFF graded the line as the worst in the league this year.

    "It doesn't matter how many passing-game weapons Daniel Jones has," Davenport wrote. "Or how electrifying running back Saquon Barkley can be. If Jones has no time to throw the ball and Barkley has no holes to run through, the G-Men are going to struggle again."

    Gagnon is a bit more optimistic about Big Blue.

    "If Jones can have a Year 3 takeoff with more support and weapons than ever and if Barkley can get back on track after his knee injury, the Giants can do some serious damage," he wrote. "They do have the talent to compete. But those are two big 'ifs.'"

23. Las Vegas Raiders

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Baltimore

    When the Las Vegas Raiders hired Jon Gruden as their head coach (again) in 2018, it was supposed to spur a return to the franchise's glory days. So far, that hasn't happened.

    In the three years since Gruden's return, the Raiders are 10 games under .500 and haven't made the postseason once. That dry spell isn't going to end in 2021, either.

    The Raiders don't have a single position group on either side of the ball in which they're above average. One of their biggest strengths in recent years is now a potential concern after Raiders general manager Mike Mayock traded three starters on the offensive line this offseason.

    Las Vegas isn't a terrible team. But isn't an especially good one, either.

    The Raiders are much more likely to finish last in the AFC West than first.

22. Minnesota Vikings

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Cincinnati

    On one hand, the Minnesota Vikings are more or less the same team that won 10 games and made the postseason in 2019.

    Kirk Cousins isn't a superstar quarterback, but he's a capable veteran. Whether it's wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook or edge-rusher Danielle Hunter and linebacker Eric Kendricks, Minnesota has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.

    But the Vikings are also essentially the same team that went 7-9 and missed the playoffs last year. They don't have a huge margin for error, and Cousins has had his share of struggles in big games.

    The schedule at least cuts the Vikings a break this year. Beginning with a trip to Cincinnati in Week 1, four of Minnesota's first six games come against teams that failed to make the postseason in 2020.

21. Denver Broncos

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Week 1: at New York Giants

    Whether it's Von Miller and Bradley Chubb on the edge, Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby at cornerback or Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson at safety, the Denver Broncos have the talent to be among the league's best defenses this season. Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton are a solid one-two punch at wide receiver, as are Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III at running back.

    With that said, any hopes the Broncos have of making the postseason lie with their new starting quarterback.

    After joining the team in the offseason, Teddy Bridgewater beat out Drew Lock to earn the nod under center, largely because he isn't as prone to turnovers. However, he didn't exactly set the world on fire in his lone season as the starter in Carolina. He threw only 15 touchdown passes and went 4-11 in his 15 starts.

    It'll take more than that to make the Broncos a contender.

20. Chicago Bears

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    David Banks/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Los Angeles Rams

    Plenty of fans and pundits wanted the Chicago Bears to start rookie quarterback Justin Fields right away. However, Andy Dalton will be under center when they face the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night.

    General manager Ryan Pace insisted that the veteran is both ready and capable of leading the Bears to success, via Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times

    "We feel like Andy's in a good spot, too. There's a lot of things about Andy—his experience; he's won a lot of games in this league; his decision-making; his intangibles; his leadership. There's so many veteran players that have come up to me and have made comments about Andy Dalton and what's he's doing—in practices, in the locker room, in the huddle."

    The Bears might be starting Dalton to spare Fields from making his pro debut against one of the league's best defenses. But given how Dalton looked last year in Dallas (and before that in Cincinnati), the clamoring for Field won't stop any time soon, especially with Chicago facing two playoff teams from last season in its first three games.

19. Indianapolis Colts

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Seattle

    After trading for quarterback Carson Wentz this offseason, the Indianapolis Colts watched both their new signal-caller and All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson go down with foot injuries during training camp. The team got good news regarding their rehab and availability for Week 1, only to then see both land on the COVID-19 list.

    Both players have since been removed from the list and are expected to play against the Seahawks, but the COVID-19 list has been a revolving door for Indy. The Colts are among the league leaders in unvaccinated players.

    Per ESPN's Mike Wells, Colts general manager Chris Ballard admitted to being frustrated by some players' reluctance to be vaccinated.

    "There's consequences to not being vaccinated," Ballard said Wednesday. "Do I think everybody should be vaccinated? Absolutely. I'm for the vaccine. [Coach] Frank [Reich] is for the vaccine. We have a lot of guys on our team who are for the vaccine. Is it 100% perfect? No. But it's a good thing."

    That frustration will go way up if prominent players for a playoff contender start missing game action.

18. New Orleans Saints

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Green Bay

    New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton said he's confident that quarterback Jameis Winston is up to the task of replacing future Hall of Famer Drew Brees under center, per Luke Johnson of NOLA.com.

    "Jameis is going to be our starter," Payton said. "He's done a great job. He's earned that. ... The No. 1 thing is leading your offense, moving the ball and scoring points. We feel like he's got a unique skill set with his arm talent."

    It isn't surprising that Winston won out over Taysom Hill, whose starts for an injured Brees last year exposed his limitations as a passer. Winston topped 5,000 passing yards with 33 touchdowns with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019, but he also threw 30 picks that year.

    For the Saints to mount a playoff push in 2021, Winston has to eliminate the turnovers that have plagued him throughout his career. And a Week 1 "home" date with the Green Bay Packers in Jacksonville will pose a stiff first test for the 2015 No. 1 overall pick.

    "Mercifully, the Hill experiment is done," Sobleski said. "Winston was the right choice to serve as Brees' heir apparent. However, the right choice doesn't necessarily mean the Saints will return to their previous status as a playoff team. The opposite is probably more likely, especially with Michael Thomas not expected to take the field until at least Week 7 after being placed on the team's physically unable to perform list."

17. Dallas Cowboys

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Tampa Bay

    The Dallas Cowboys are equal parts happy and nervous as we move into Week 1.

    The happy part isn't hard to pinpoint. After a miserable 2020 season, the team has star quarterback Dak Prescott back under center. One of the NFL's worst scoring defenses from a year ago got a new coordinator in Dan Quinn and a couple of new starters at linebacker in rookie Micah Parsons and converted safety Keanu Neal.

    The cause for the nervousness is even easier to pinpoint. Dallas will open the 2021 season on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers—a tall task for Prescott in his first game back.

    There's little question the Cowboys have the most prolific offense in the NFC East. Provided Prescott can stay on the field, scoring points shouldn't be an issue.

    But it's that new-look defense's ability to stop opponents from doing the same that will determine whether Dallas can mount a serious postseason push in 2021.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Buffalo

    When last we saw the Pittsburgh Steelers, they were getting rolled at home by the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card Round. It was a bitter end to a year that begin with a franchise-record 11 straight wins.

    The Steelers have the potential to have another successful regular season in 2021. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears healthy after wearing down late in the season a year ago. The addition of rookie Najee Harris should offer a sizable boost to what was the league's worst run game in 2020. A defense led by edge-rusher T.J. Watt should be one of the NFL's best again in 2021.

    There is, however, at least one major stumbling block. After an offseason of personnel losses, Pittsburgh's offensive line is essentially one big question mark. If that line struggles, the entire offense could follow suit.

    It won't take long to get a feel for how good this year's Steelers really are. Pittsburgh opens the season in Buffalo and travels to Green Bay to face the Packers in Week 4.

15. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Washington

    After an impressive rookie season from Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, expectations are high for the Chargers in Brandon Staley's first year as head coach. As Robert Mays wrote for the Athletic, Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi have made a concerted effort to craft the team's offense around their young quarterback.

    "I think we've done a good job of truly creating an offense for him," Staley said. "And one that he feels confident in each and every play. That's what's been fun. Because you can see it in the way he plays and how that ball comes off his hand, what his footwork and his rhythm and timing look like. I think there's been some good signs here that would lead to believe he's in a real comfort zone."

    Herbert has talent around him, and the offensive line should be improved with the addition of veteran center Corey Linsley and rookie tackle Rashawn Slater. If Joey Bosa, Kenneth Murray and the Chargers defense can hold their own as well, the Bolts could at least be a factor in the wild-card race in the AFC.

    "The Chargers are packed with potential for Coach Staley to harness," Sobleski wrote. "The team has made smart move after smart move this offseason. Staley's defensive scheme should make that side of the ball even better. The staff plans to build its offensive approach through Herbert. More importantly, general manager Tom Telesco built a strong offensive front to maximize Herbert's capabilities."

14. Miami Dolphins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Week 1: at New England

    The Dolphins quietly put together a good season in 2020, winning 10 games and narrowly missing the postseason. But while quarterback Tua Tagovailoa won six of his nine starts as a rookie, there has been quite a bit of scuttlebutt connecting the Dolphins to Deshaun Watson.

    However, as Mark Inabinett reported for AL.com, Miami head coach Brian Flores offered a vote of confidence in his young quarterback.

    "I don't know if I can be more clear," Flores said. "I don't know how many times—I don't know how much more clear I can be here. Tua's the starter. I mean, do I need to say it again? I will."

    It's certainly no stretch to say that Year 2 improvement from Tagovailoa is critical if the Dolphins are going to take the next step and make the postseason. But that improvement may hinge as much on the guys ahead of him as Tagovailoa himself—Miami's young offensive line struggled at times in 2020, finishing the season 28th in PFF's end-of-year O-line rankings.

13. Arizona Cardinals

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Tennessee

    The Arizona Cardinals are one of the more interesting teams in the league this year. This is a team that opened the 2020 season 6-3 only to fade down the stretch and miss the playoffs.

    If you're the optimistic sort, you might point to the offensive firepower in quarterback Kyler Murray, running back Chase Edmonds and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Or you might point to the arrival of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

    If you're the pessimistic sort, you might point to the fact that Watt is already battling a hamstring injury. Or that Murray's level of play fell off late in the 2020 season. Or to the fact that the sudden retirement of veteran cornerback Malcolm Butler left a large hole in the secondary. Or that the Redbirds play in an NFC West that is absolutely loaded.

    The Cardinals have the talent to make a run at a playoff spot. But given their circumstances and brutal division, it's just as likely they lose double-digit games.

    Still, you can count Gagnon among those who expect big things from Arizona in 2021.

    "I think a lot of us are sleeping on the Cardinals," he said. "They have the talent on both sides of the ball, and I'm fired up about Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury coming off what is really their first full and proper offseason together. Watch for a big third-year jump from the 2019 No. 1 overall pick."

12. Washington Football Team

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Los Angeles Chargers

    The Washington Football Team have quite a bit going for them in 2021.

    The defense could be the best in the league. The D-line features four starters who were all first-round picks. The arrival of rookie Jamin Davis injected athleticism into the linebacker corps, and the secondary is strong.

    On offense, the team possesses an above-average line. In running back Antonio Gibson, tight end Logan Thomas and wideouts Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel, Washington has a solid array of skill-position talent.

    In theory, Washington has just about everything it takes to repeat as NFC East champions and get back to the playoffs.

    Provided, that is, Ryan Fitzpatrick can hold his own as the team's quarterback.

    Fitzpatrick was decent in seven starts for the Dolphins in 2020, and he has thrown 50 touchdown passes against 33 interceptions over the past three seasons.

    But Fitzpatrick is also a 38-year-old journeyman with 169 career interceptions and a career record of 59-86-1 who has never led a team to the postseason.

11. New England Patriots

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Miami

    The future is now for the New England Patriots.

    When the Pats open the regular season Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, it will be with rookie Mac Jones under center. The 15th overall pick in the 2021 draft impressed throughout the preseason, so much so that New England not only named him the starter but also released veteran Cam Newton outright.

    Per Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal, New England wideout Kendrick Bourne said the youngster is more than ready to lead an NFL offense.

    "For any starter, I think you feel that pressure, but he was built for it, man, since 'Bama," Bourne said. "I think he's more ready than anybody really knows."

    "You know the Patriots will play well defensively," Davenport said. "New England has a top-10 offensive line…maybe top-five. The skill-position talent isn't great, but it'll do. If Jones can provide the passing game and offensive balance that Newton couldn't in 2020, then the Pats' postseason drought may well be a short one."

    "The Patriots will be a better team this fall with Jones leading the way instead of entering another season with Newton behind center," Sobleski added. "First, Jones showed exactly why he became a first-round pick when he won the job outright. Secondly, the first-year signal-caller presents the perfect skill set to succeed in Josh McDaniels' offense."

10. San Francisco 49ers

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Detroit

    The San Francisco 49ers are apparently adherents of the philosophy that two heads are better than one.

    Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan used both veteran Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Trey Lance with the first team in the preseason finale, and both quarterbacks led touchdown drives.

    Shanahan has yet to announce a Week 1 starter, but he told reporters (via 49ers Webzone) that he hasn't ruled out continuing to use a committee approach at the game's most important position.

    "We're working through everything and trying to figure everything out," he said. "Seeing what they're good at, what they can help us with on the team, how to balance stuff out, and that's why we are practicing everything. I've never been in a situation where I had a skill set where I had two guys like that you could practice it, and that's what we're finding out."

    Frankly, it probably doesn't matter who the quarterback is for the opener against the lowly Lions. Or quite possibly even for Week 2 against the Eagles.

    But starting in Week 3, things get real: seven straight games against teams who were .500 or better in 2020.

9. Tennessee Titans

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Arizona

    The Tennessee Titans are the Rodney Dangerfields of the NFL. Despite making the playoffs the past two years (and playing in the AFC title game two years ago), the Titans don't get a lot of run as a Super Bowl contender.

    Still, many of the pieces are there. Ryan Tannehill might be one of the league's more underrated signal-callers. Running back Derrick Henry has led the league in rushing each of the past two seasons. And Tennessee added Julio Jones to a passing game that already included a star in A.J. Brown.

    However, the Titans fielded the league's fourth-worst pass defense in 2020, and if the Titans are going to take on the Chiefs and Bills, that defense has to get a lot better.

    "Tennessee added some edge-rushing help in free agency by signing Bud Dupree, who should help goose a pass rush that managed just 19 sacks for the season," Davenport said. "An improved pass rush should help the secondary, but after losing both Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson in free agency, the defensive backfield in Nashville looms large as something that could derail the Titans' postseason aspirations."

8. Seattle Seahawks

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Indianapolis

    The Seattle Seahawks came out of the gate red-hot last year, but the offense faltered late in the season. That slump led to a change in both offensive philosophy and coordinator.

    Shane Waldron is calling the shots now in the Emerald City, and he told ESPN's Brady Henderson the new scheme will feature more quick passes while still containing the deep shots Russell Wilson has long excelled at making.

    "To me, it's just a part of having a balanced offense," Waldron said. "Which doesn't mean we're conservative and dink and dunk all the time, but when are those right opportunities to take completions, having that completion-making mindset and then moving forward to the next play."

    In running back Chris Carson and wide receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, the Seahawks certainly have the weaponry to field one of the league's most formidable offenses. But Waldron's scheme will be tested right out of the gate: The Colts were eighth in total defense and 10th in scoring defense last year.

7. Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Las Vegas

    The one thing a Super Bowl contender absolutely does not want in the preseason is a major injury to a key contributor.

    Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened to the Baltimore Ravens, as the team lost starting running back J.K. Dobbins to a season-ending ACL tear.

    It's not a catastrophic injury. Gus Edwards has played well when afforded the opportunity in the past, and he told reporters he's ready to step into a much larger role.

    "It's a great opportunity," Edwards said, via the Ravens. "It's really unfortunate what happened. My feelings go out to J.K. I know how hard he worked this season. Just to see how hard he's been practicing, it's real unfortunate. I'm ready to do whatever's asked of me. I'm ready to step up."

    Still, for a team that runs the ball as much as the Ravens do, losing the team's top running back just before the season begins is a sizable blow. At least the Ravens will have a little time to get things in order. Three of the team's first four games are against opponents that went .500 or worse in 2020.

    The fourth is in Week 2 against the Chiefs.

6. Los Angeles Rams

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Chicago

    On Sunday night at SoFi Stadium, the Matthew Stafford era begins in Los Angeles.

    The 33-year-old will head into the 2021 campaign with the best supporting cast of his career. He has two elite wide receivers at his disposal in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, a quality tight end and offensive line and one of the league's best defenses helping to keep him in games.

    Woods told the Jim Rome Show (via Cameron DaSilva of Rams Wire) that Stafford has taken to the L.A. offense like a duck to water.

    "Chemistry was strong right away, coming out here throwing," he said. "His work ethic was on point. But really, I'll just say his leadership and grasp of the offense—I was just telling somebody, he has the keys to the car and he's really testing it out and seeing what this car can do, making adjustments and seeing what he can do with it."

    There's all kinds of potential for Stafford in his new home, but given what the Rams gave up to bring him west, there's something else as well.

    Expectations. Pressure. It's Super Bowl or bust.

5. Buffalo Bills

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Pittsburgh

    It's a good time to be Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen.

    Fresh off a 13-win season and a trip to the AFC Championship Game, Allen hit the proverbial jackpot in the offseason, landing a massive six-year, $258 million contract extension. Now, as Bleacher Report's Tim Daniels wrote, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported the 25-year-old is garnering more than a little MVP buzz in league circles.

    "There's some sneaky MVP buzz around Josh Allen right now because I've informally polled some execs around the league about who they think is going to win the award. Allen's name has come up a lot because this is a guy who's in a great offense, a team in contention," Fowler said. "I'm hearing Allen has been a lot better at mastering the nuances of the game, the pre-snap protections, all those things you need to win at the quarterback position."

    The offensive weapons are certainly there in Buffalo; the team led the AFC in scoring last year at 31.3 points per game. The defense isn't elite, but it's not porous either.

    The Chiefs may be the kings of the AFC. But Allen and the Bills aren't far behind.

4. Cleveland Browns

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    Week 1: at Kansas City

    For the second time in three seasons, the Cleveland Browns were the offseason hype darlings of the NFL.

    After winning 11 games last year and the team's first postseason victory since the mid-'90s, the Browns spent the offseason overhauling the defense, adding talent at all three levels. Per Andrew Gribble of the team's website, defensive coordinator Joe Woods said he wants to turn Cleveland's defense into one of the NFL's most feared units.

    "We want to be a fast, aggressive team," Woods said. "We want to be able to take away the ball. We really want to dictate the way the game is played. I want to be aggressive with our game planning, aggressive in terms of getting after the quarterback with blitz packages and not really worry about what they are doing—make them worry about what we are doing. That is the hope."

    That revamped defense is being thrown to the proverbial wolves in the season opener: a trip to Arrowhead to face Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

    "I'm the lowest of the three analysts on Cleveland to open the season," Davenport said. "It's not that I don't think the Browns have the talent to make a Super Bowl run. But I also remember the hype in 2019 that was followed by a six-win debacle of a season. Let's see the new defense in action at least once before we start ticketing the team for a February trip to Los Angeles."

3. Green Bay Packers

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    Week 1: at New Orleans

    For most of the offseason, the dominant story in Green Bay was Aaron Rodgers' future with the team and his relationship with general manager Brian Gutekunst. But fences have been mended (at least for now), and Gutekunst said he and the team's quarterback are on solid footing.

    "I've had really good conversations throughout camp with Aaron and Matt [LaFleur], and I think the communication has been really, really good," Gutekunst said (via Grant Gordon of NFL.com). "As we went into this kind of decision-making period, I think everybody—all the people that are kind of involved in that—were very aware of what was going on and why we were doing what we were doing. So, I feel really good about that. And the conversations that I've had with Aaron have been excellent."

    Now that the action in Titletown is back on the field where it belongs, Green Bay is back in the thick of the Super Bowl fray in the NFC. After all, this is a team that went 13-3 and made the NFC Championship Game each of the past two years.

    With a team that is short on glaring weaknesses and a manageable schedule, another 12- to 13-win season and NFC North title is well within reach.

    "Despite all of the drama this past offseason, the Packers are set up nicely to make a potential run through the NFC and possibly topple the Tampa Bay Buccaneers," Sobleski said. "Hell hath no fury like Aaron Rodgers scorned. You better believe the reigning MVP is out to prove something this year after his public imbroglio with Green Bay's front office." 

2. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Cleveland

    The Kansas City Chiefs enter the 2021 season with a clear goal: advance to the Super Bowl for the third year in a row and win a second championship over that span.

    There's a reason why the Chiefs are the clear favorites in the AFC. Several of them, in fact. The Chiefs offense is loaded with talent and led by a generational talent at quarterback in Patrick Mahomes. The Kansas City defense isn't as potent as the offense, but it has some impact players in defensive tackle Chris Jones and safety Tyrann Mathieu.

    The biggest unanswered question for the Chiefs is how a rebuilt offensive line that struggled in a big way in Super Bowl LV will fare. If the preseason is any indication, that line will be markedly improved in 2021. And that makes Kansas City a very dangerous team.

    That line will have to be ready right out of the gate. On Sunday, the Chiefs open the season against Jadeveon Clowney, Myles Garrett and the Cleveland Browns.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    Week 1: vs. Dallas

    The offseason is usually a time of great change for NFL teams.

    However, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers must have believed that which is not broken does not need to be fixed. The Super Bowl champions will open the 2021 season against the Dallas Cowboys with a roster that is largely unchanged compared to last year.

    This isn't to say there aren't new faces, whether it's running back Giovani Bernard on offense or edge-rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka on defense. But all 22 starters for the team that throttled the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV will be back when the Bucs take on the Dallas Cowboys in this week's Thursday night opener.

    "Tampa has be considered the favorite in the NFC," Davenport said. "The offense has all kinds of skill-position talent and is led by the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. A defense that ranked sixth in yards allowed, first against the run and eighth in points allowed returns impact starters at all three levels. If you wanna be the best, you gotta beat the best. So until Tampa gets knocked off its perch, the Buccaneers are my No. 1 team in these power rankings."


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