B/R NFL Expert Picks for 2021 Division Winners
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Steve Luciano/Associated Press
Turnover is natural in the NFL. Players, coaches and front-office executives change teams every offseason, so the squads on top rarely stay there for long.
Last year, only three teams repeated as division champions: the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs. However, a return to normalcy—at least by NFL standards—should help stabilize the league’s hierarchy with a full offseason under each team’s belt.
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the offseason last year and truncated the preseason. Despite that adversity, multiple teams who won their divisions in 2020 are poised to repeat as champions, according to Bleacher Report NFL analysts Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski and Gary Davenport.
Three of this year’s picks to win their respective divisions did so last year, too. The NFC East is a tossup after its collective disastrous performance last fall, while the other new projected division champions are all coming off playoff campaigns.
The top of the NFL appears to be settling.
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Brad Gagnon: Buffalo Bills
Brent Sobleski: Buffalo Bills
Gary Davenport: Miami Dolphins
Surprisingly, the Bills weren’t the runaway favorite to claim their second straight AFC East title.
The Dolphins are a team to watch in 2021 after they finished 10-6 and just missed out on a postseason berth last year.
“The Bills were fantastic offensively on the way to tying a franchise record for regular-season wins,” Davenport wrote. But Josh Allen’s career year screams regression in 2021, and the Buffalo defense is so-so. If Tua Tagovailoa is half the quarterback so many thought he was not long ago, this isn’t a big stretch.”
However, the Bills boast one of the league’s most complete rosters. Allen reached near-MVP status a year ago, and Buffalo has a slew of talented players on both sides of the ball.
“The Bills have multiple young players who could ascend and make the team even better,” Sobleski said. “Devin Singletary, Gabriel Davis, Dawson Knox, Cody Ford, A.J. Epenesa and Tremaine Edmunds could all realistically play at a higher level this fall than they did a year ago. If they do, the Bills won’t just battle for another division title; they could overtake the Kansas City Chiefs as the AFC’s top overall squad.”
The onus will largely fall on Allen after an amazing breakthrough campaign with 45 total touchdowns.
“The New England Patriots and Dolphins could absolutely make the AFC East race interesting, but I don’t trust Tagovailoa or Cam Newton,” Gagnon added. “That’s the difference.”
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Brad Gagnon: New York Giants
Brent Sobleski: Dallas Cowboys
Gary Davenport: Washington Football Team
The NFC East fared so poorly last season that it shouldn’t have been represented in the playoffs. But the Washington Football Team eked out a division-winning 7-9 record thanks to five victories in its final seven contests.
As the reigning champs with a premier defense, Washington would seem to be a natural choice to repeat. Only Davenport leaned in that direction, though.
“Dallas is indisputably going to roll out the best offense in the division,” he wrote. “But how well will Dan Quinn’s new-look defense be able to keep pace? Washington’s defense (in theory) is as good as any in the entire league, and Ryan Fitzpatrick gives the offense a mix of a veteran presence and a bigger arm. If Fitzpatrick can avoid costly turnovers, this team could be a legit threat in the NFC.”
Everyone loves a little Fitz-magic. When the bearded bomber gets rolling, he’s an absolute joy to watch. He could elevate Washington’s offense, but not everyone believes in the journeyman.
“The Dallas defense will be, horrible and the Washington Football Team will be sunk by poor quarterback play, while the table is set for New York’s Daniel Jones to break out,” Gagnon predicted. “The Giants win a nail-biter with nine or 10 wins.”
Dallas does present the most talented option. Injuries obliterated the Cowboys’ opportunity to win the division last year even during a down season. They should be healthy this fall, though, which could help them find their way back on top.
“Dak Prescott’s return to the lineup alone makes the Cowboys better than any other NFC East squad,” Sobleski stated. “Dallas’ defense does need to be better, but the organization spent its first six draft picks on that side of the ball. Besides, the Cowboys offense is explosive enough to win the division by itself.”
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Brad Gagnon: Cleveland Browns
Brent Sobleski: Cleveland Browns
Gary Davenport: Baltimore Ravens
A changing of the guard seems well on its way in the AFC North.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have won four of the last seven division titles. However, five losses in their final six games, including a blowout loss to the Browns in the playoffs, has them trending in the wrong direction.
The Browns or Ravens can easily fill that void.
“Cleveland built a loaded roster,” Sobleski wrote. “The Browns return all 11 offensive starters with the game’s best offensive line, an elite running back duo, two star wide receivers, multiple threats at tight end and one of the game’s better young quarterbacks in Baker Mayfield. The defense needed work, though. This offseason, general manager Andrew Berry nearly revamped the entire unit with nine new projected starters, each of whom can be construed as an upgrade.”
Mayfield’s ultimate potential seems to be the sticking point for some. A full season of elite performance will push him from a fringe top-10 quarterback to one of the league’s best.
“The Ravens still have the division’s most dangerous quarterback, Lamar Jackson,” Gagnon said. “But Cleveland is the much better all-around team now, and there’s little reason to believe Mayfield won’t continue to ascend.”
Not everyone has completely bought into the Browns, though. After all, Baltimore did claim two straight division crowns before last season.
“The Browns are the best team in the division on paper,” Davenport wrote. “The Steelers are being counted out because of their horrendous offensive line. The Cincinnati Bengals are, well, the Bengals. Meanwhile, the Ravens have been to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and are just two years removed from a 14-2 season. Ravens win the North, with the Browns hot on their heels.”
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Brad Gagnon: Green Bay Packers
Brent Sobleski: Chicago Bears
Brad Gagnon: Green Bay Packers
The ongoing drama surrounding Aaron Rodgers and his public imbroglio with the Green Bay Packers make the NFC North far more difficult to project.
With Rodgers, Green Bay is easily one of the conference’s best squads and a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Without the reigning MVP, the Jordan Love era begins and the Packers aren’t nearly as formidable.
A caveat accompanies each of these particular selections.
“This pick assumes that Rodgers is under center when the Packers open the regular season at New Orleans, which seems more likely by the day,” Davenport rationalized. “The Bears can’t be counted out after two playoff trips in three years. The Minnesota Vikings aren’t a bad team by any stretch. But the Packers are the class of the division, and it isn’t especially close.”
As good as the Packers are with Rodgers behind center, the division isn’t settled. The Bears could make a push, especially after trading up for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.
“Even if Rodgers remains in Green Bay, I could see the Bears making waves if they aren’t shy about turning to Fields early,” Gagnon stated. “They certainly have enough talent on both sides of the ball.”
The Bears have needed a franchise quarterback for so long that the thought of them having legitimate talent behind center has one analyst exuberant.
“Trading up for Fields at No. 11 was the single best decision during the 2021 NFL draft,” Sobleski said. “He’s a legitimate top talent who should be viewed as the present and future of Bears football. Don’t believe me? He graded as the most accurate quarterback in the Pro Football Focus era. Even with the rookie behind center, the Bears have a good enough roster around him to compete with the Packers.”
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Brad Gagnon: Indianapolis Colts
Brent Sobleski: Tennessee Titans
Gary Davenport: Indianapolis Colts
The Houston Texans are entering a rebuild under new general manager Nick Caserio and head coach David Culley, but they appear to be the only team out of the running for the AFC South heading into 2021.
“I really wanted to go bold with the Jacksonville Jaguars here because I do believe they’ll be much improved, and Colts quarterback Carson Wentz scares me,” Gagnon said. “I also don’t know if the Titans are as awesome as some think just because they added Julio Jones. Ultimately, Indy has the most talent in the division, and head coach Frank Reich very well could fix Wentz.”
The Jaguars were 1-15 last year, which indicates just how much talent they’ve added this offseason. However, the Titans are the reigning division champs, and they added Julio Jones, Bud Dupree and Caleb Farley over the past few months to offset the losses of Corey Davis, Jadeveon Clowney and Malcolm Butler.
“At worst, the Titans continued to tread water,” Sobleski said. “Considering what they added, they’re still one of the AFC’s more talented squads. Jones is clearly an upgrade at wide receiver. The same can be said of Dupree after Tennessee got nothing from Clowney or Vic Beasley Jr. Farley is a wild card due to his injury history, but he has immense upside.
“The Titans have a formula that they’ll keep sticking to, which will lead to more success.”
Even so, the Colts get the nod because they’re viewed as the most complete squad of the four as long Wentz returns to form under a coaching staff that knows him well.
“This one is a tough call, because Tennessee’s offense has the potential to be terrifying,” Davenport noted. “The problem is that the Titans defense might be as well for the wrong reasons. Even if Wentz never recaptures his MVP form from 2017, he’ll rebound this year under Reich. Indy’s balance wins out.”
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Brad Gagnon: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brent Sobleski: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gary Davenport: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went from 12 straight years of missing the playoffs to Super Bowl champions thanks to arguably the greatest offseason in NFL history.
There’s no reason to believe they’ll take a step back this fall other than some cliche-filled argument about a championship hangover or the players not being hungry anymore. Our analysts aren’t buying that.
“Welcome to No-Brainer Theater. Tonight’s feature, ‘Well, Duh!,’ was directed by Bruce Arians. Tom Brady continues in a starring role that has come to define his career: Super Bowl front-runner,” Davenport said. “Will Tampa’s unprecedented decision to bring back all 22 starters from last year’s Super Bowl winner work? That remains to be seen. But with Drew Brees gone in New Orleans, no team in the division is a legit threat to Tampa.”
The Buccaneers’ run is even more amazing considering how the COVID-19 pandemic affected last offseason. Imagine what they’ll do with more typical preparation this year.
“Sure, Brady held some unsanctioned/informal practices last offseason, but this team didn’t hit its stride until after its Week 13 bye,” Sobleski noted. “Tampa Bay didn’t lose after that point. Imagine what an entire starting lineup returning after a championship can do now that the players actually know each other and how they operate.”
The only question is whether any other NFC South can make this division race interesting. The Atlanta Falcons aren’t better without Julio Jones. The Carolina Panthers acquired Sam Darnold, who remains a question mark at the game’s most important position. The New Orleans Saints must transition from Drew Brees to either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill.
“Tampa Bay might win this division by a six-game margin,” Gagnon proclaimed.
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Brad Gagnon: Kansas City Chiefs
Brent Sobleski: Kansas City Chiefs
Gary Davenport: Kansas City Chiefs
The AFC West should simultaneously be one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions and among the easiest to predict.
The Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders are all capable of finishing with winning records, but the Chiefs are clearly the division’s best team, as well as the best that the AFC has to offer.
Kansas City represented the conference in each of the last two Super Bowls. The second appearance didn’t go as planned, though. The Buccaneers destroyed Kansas City’s front five on its way to Patrick Mahomes, and even the NFL’s best quarterback couldn’t do enough to offset that amount of pressure. As a result, the Chiefs attacked the offseason with an unmatched fervor.
“How Kansas City rebuilt its offensive line this offseason was a sight to behold,” Sobleski said. “The unit went from a significant weakness to what looks like an eventual strength. The additions of Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Austin Blythe and rookie Creed Humphrey—not including Kyle Long, who suffered a leg injury during minicamp—as well as the returns of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Lucas Niang, both of whom opted out of last season, should make the Chiefs even more dangerous than they already were.”
The Chiefs didn’t need to add anything else to the rest of the offense. As long as the group stays healthy, Mahomes and Co. will be almost impossible to stop.
“I think they’re better now than they were in 2019,” Gagnon said. “The offensive line is jacked!”
Kansas City does have slight questions on the other side of the ball, especially in the wake of Frank Clark’s legal troubles. But the NFL is an offense-driven league, and no unit is better than the Chiefs’.
“The question here is less who will win the division and more how many games the Chiefs will win it by,” Davenport stated. “If the Broncos can get competent play at quarterback and the Chargers can do a better job not getting Justin Herbert killed, they are wild-card possibilities. But barring Thanos showing up with a glove full of rocks, the Chiefs are taking the division crown for the sixth straight season.”
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Brad Gagnon: Arizona Cardinals
Brent Sobleski: Los Angeles Rams
Gary Davenport: Los Angeles Rams
The shine seemingly wore off last season’s Seattle Seahawks.
Russell Wilson played like an MVP favorite during the first half of the campaign only to falter slightly down the stretch. The Seahawks’ defense performed historically poorly to open the 2020 season only to improve dramatically over the second half. In the end, Seattle clinched a division title and lost in the Wild Card Round to the Los Angeles Rams.
Meanwhile, the Rams made arguably the offseason’s biggest move when they traded a pair of first-round picks, a third-rounder and Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford.
Stafford may be able to push them beyond what they’ve already achieved under head coach Sean McVay, which includes a Super Bowl appearance.
“Stafford enters a situation he’s never really been in before,” Sobleski said. “He’ll benefit from one of football’s brilliant offensive minds. In turn, he adds a completely different dynamic to the offense, because his arm talent allows him to threaten every blade of grass.”
Both the Rams and San Francisco 49ers should make the NFC West race interesting, though.
“I will confess to a temptation to pick the 49ers here,” Davenport said. “If San Francisco gets good quarterback play in 2021, no team in the league is better equipped to go from the outhouse to the penthouse. But the Rams have one of the league’s best defenses and a quarterback in Stafford who can open up Sean McVay’s offense in a way that Goff just couldn’t.”
Maybe the upstart Cardinals finally make a push after a 13-18-1 record in Kliff Kingsbury’s first two seasons.
“This is the ultimate toss-up, with all four teams having a shot,” Gagnon wrote. “I like the Cardinals’ momentum compared to the other three.”
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