It’s almost as if the NFL is emulating college football heading into the 2021 season. Yes, the Buccaneers are the defending champions and the Packers deservedly have title aspirations.
The rest of the NFC, well, it looks more like Conference USA in comparison to the AFC, the professional version of the SEC. It is that lopsided.
Consider the likes of the Chiefs, Bills, Ravens, Browns, Steelers,Titans,Colts, Dolphins,Patriots and Chargers. All have their supporters as Super Bowl contenders, with Kansas City, Buffalo, Baltimore and Cleveland ahead of a packed field.
On the other side, it’s difficult to take anyone seriously in the NFC East or North (aside from Green Bay). While the NFC West is strong and will be tightly contested, all four members — Rams, Seahawks, 49ers, Cardinals — have major questions the Bucs, who brought back virtually everyone — a rare feat for a Super Bowl winner, even one with Tom Brady at quarterback — and Packers already pretty much have answered.
“You want the road to the Super Bowl, the road to where we want to get to, to be as hard as possible,” says Titans safety Kevin Byard. “I think that’s something we can be proud of, and it also keeps us on our toes to let us know, ’Hey there’s a lot of competition out there for the AFC championship or just the Super Bowl. We have to go out here every single day and work as hard as we can and not take any days for granted. Because at the end of the day … it’s a crowded race, it’s kind of like a horse race … You got to keep going on.
“It’s not one of those deals where you can get ahead early and think you can slack off. No, every single day we have to put the work in and not necessarily really get caught up on who’s 5-0 early in the year, just keeping our heads down working and we’ll see where we’re at at the end of the year.”
Adds Browns safety John Johnson III, who jumped conferences this season, signing with Cleveland as a free agent after four years with the Rams:
“You got some big-time contenders — even just in this division alone. And then you look at Buffalo and Kansas City and you never know who else in that division with Kansas City can come alive. Denver can come alive, so I think it is pretty competitive, and it’s a different game.”
A different game in every way, because the continuing COVID-19 pandemic likely will be a competitive factor as the NFL plays a 17-game regular season for the first time.
Vaccinated players have a distinct freedom advantage in how they can conduct their lives — at least for now — compared to the unvaccinated. More than 93% of the players have gotten the vaccine, but it doesn’t take much to cause an outbreak, as the Titans and Cowboys witnessed during the preseason.
“There’s people’s livelihoods at stake in terms of people’s jobs,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said late last month; Buffalo has had one of the lowest vaccination rates of the 32 teams. “Being able to count on people is important, so when you’re going through a week — if this were a real week — and having the players out that we’ve had, that makes it harder to win games that way.”
Injuries, of course, will also be a key factor; they always are. One of the most damaging last season was the severe ankle injury for Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott. He’s been hampered by shoulder issues this summer, so the spotlight Thursday night will be firmly on him as the Cowboys kick off the schedule at Tampa Bay.
Oh, that 44-year-old guy named Brady behind center for the Buccaneers might grab some attention, too.
Seven head coaches debut, with Urban Meyer in Jacksonville the headliner following his success — and wanderlust — in the college game. Four of what figure to be the worst teams in the league have new men in charge: Nick Sirianni with the Eagles, Robert Saleh with the Jets, Dan Campbell with the Lions, and the Texans’ David Culley, the only African American to get one of the seven openings. Arthur Smith takes over the Falcons, Brandon Staley the Chargers.
Meyer’s excitement about the upcoming opener is palpable.
“This is right near the top because I don’t remember ever coming out of the chute where the talent is equated across the board and you have a young quarterback,” he says. “So, yeah. it is a lot going on but I like where we are at.”
The league plans to return to London for games a year after moving those back to U.S. home stadiums. Those matches have Jets vs. Falcons and Dolphins vs. Jaguars in October.
One more very noticeable — and notable — scheduling item: The Super Bowl in Los Angeles will be played later than ever, Feb. 13. That’s smack in the middle of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
By then, the AFC will have sorted out its impressive collection of contenders. Don’t be surprised if the conference winner finds Brady and the Bucs or Aaron Rodgers and the Packers as the opponent.
AP Pro Football Writers Teresa M. Walker and Mark Long, and Sports Writers John Wawrow and Tom Withers contributed.
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