2021 NFL Preview

September 6, 2021

Getty Images/Christian Petersen

Welcome back to full-fledged football.

Though we continue to struggle our way out of this pandemic, some signs of normalcy are returning. Fans in NFL stadiums getting to see all 32 teams is one of those signs.

Football hasn’t been the same in the last couple of years, but the format of this annual preview has been in place for over a decade now: I’ll go division-by-division and predict win-loss records for every team. I’ll do a brief overview of each team and explain the logic behind each prediction. Just be aware there’s a really good chance you’ll read some things you may not like about your favorite team. If I’m wrong, enjoy your bragging rights. But if I’m right, be sure to give me my props just the same.

Before delving into the predictions, here are some of the biggest factors affecting the 2021 NFL season.

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West

NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

Overview | Playoffs | Awards

The 17-game schedule

While I’m glad we only had three preseason games to suffer through, the dissymmetry of a 17-game regular season stinks. No other major North American professional league has an odd number of games. Some NFL teams will have nine home games; others, only eight. Plus, for a violent sport like football, adding another game flies in the face of player safety.

But it’s here and coaches have to deal with it — but how? The two dreaded curse words that have stained the NBA — load management — could now become a reality in the NFL.

Also, consider this: Elite teams such as the Chiefs and Bucs could win their divisions by such a wide margin that their final three or four games could be rendered moot — and that could lead to the exact end-of-season competitive imbalance that the league tried to guard against by making all regular-season finales division games.

As usual, the best-coached teams will be the ones who effectively navigate their way to the finish line.

COVID-19’s impact on the season

Basically a microcosm of the country at large, the NFL has been wrestling with vaccination and the politics foolishly surrounding it a year after the season was upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, the league has said it won’t do the constant reshuffling it did in 2020, when games were played on all seven days of the calendar week for the first time. Teams unable to play due to a COVID outbreak will now simply take a forfeit rather than create scheduling headaches for everyone else.

Leaguewide, the vaccination rate is above 90%, so we may not see things come to that — but with the Dallas Cowboys already dealing with an outbreak, we’ve already seen evidence that it just might.

In New England, Cam Newton was released, indirectly, because he’s not vaccinated (even if the Patriots won’t admit it). Kirk Cousins and Lamar Jackson each missed precious practice time during training camp because of COVID protocols and sound unwilling to get vaccinated. Last week, Carson Wentz went on and on about his status as unvaccinated.

Last year, Denver demonstrated how COVID protocols can devastate a team when they lost all their QBs and had to start a practice squad receiver under center. That basically handed the Saints a win that was the difference in a division race they ultimately won.

Like it or not, teams with the highest vaccination rates will have a clearer path to victory because of the competitive advantage it provides. And as if Tampa Bay needs any more advantages, the Bucs are the second team to reach 100% vaccination.

The offseason QB carousel

For awhile, it looked like we were about to see the most quarterback turnover in the Super Bowl era. The 2021 game of musical chairs (12 new starters) falls short of the 16 new starters in 1999, but it’s a compelling storyline nonetheless.

Here’s an eye-popping statistic: Not a single QB drafted from 2009 to 2016 is still with the team that drafted him. Expand that to 2018 and Baker Mayfield is the lone QB selected in the top five to keep the same jersey throughout his NFL career.

The QB carousel worked out well for Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in 2020. Will another Year 1 QB hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Los Angeles come February?

The crackdown on taunting

The No Fun League strikes again.

Easily one of my favorite things to watch during the 2020 season was the on-field tete-a-tete between Tyreek Hill and Antoine Winfield Jr. An otherwise boring Super Bowl was lively because Winfield got payback for Hill’s deuces on his way to the end zone in the first meeting between the Chiefs and Bucs. Winfield got flagged for his; Hill did not.

This year, both deuces are 15-yard penalties.

As usual, the NFL has imagined a problem that isn’t there. In 2020, there were only 10 taunting penalties. Predictably, this was called inconsistently throughout the preseason and few flags were less warranted than this madness:

Here’s how this plays out: The refs will call this penalty to a ridiculous extent. It will effect the outcome of an important game; there will be outrage over that, and they’ll go right back to the way things were — just like they did years ago when they backed off the crackdown on choreographed celebrations and the ill-fated replays on pass interference. When will the league learn?

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on WTOP.com.

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