2021 NFL Power Rankings, Tier 3 | Possible division winners/playoff contenders
These are teams that have a realistic shot to contend for their division (or at the very least a playoff spot).
19) Los Angeles Chargers
The arrival of Justin Herbert has immediately breathed life into the Chargers’ organization. The departure of Philip Rivers could have signaled a period of struggles, but the second half of the 2020 NFL season will have provided much optimism.
The Chargers’ roster has a lot of talent, but can they put it all together and challenge in the AFC? The 2021 season may be a touch early for any Super Bowl conversations, but the playoffs are certainly within reach this season.
18) Miami Dolphins
One of the hardest teams to rank in the entire league, the Miami Dolphins have a lot of potential. If Tua Tagovailoa develops and strikes up a connection with Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, then we could see this offense go off like a rocket.
With defensive-minded head coach Brian Flores leading a talented unit, they certainly have the defense in a position to give them a chance. If it all clicks, we could see Miami challenging the Bills in the AFC East.
17) New England Patriots
The Patriots might even be a bigger unknown than the Dolphins. They struggled in 2020, partly due to the inconsistency they got at QB from Cam Newton, but also due to a major loss of talent through opt-outs. The 2021 season will see a number of those players return, alongside a major investment on both sides of the ball in free agency.
As with many teams, the season is likely to hinge on the play of their QB. Newton’s second season in the system should bring improvement, but the presence of first-round pick Mac Jones muddies the waters somewhat. If Newton struggles, we could see Jones coming in to replace him, setting the team back significantly. The Patriots’ outcomes appear to be anything from five to 12 wins depending on the play of the offense.
16) Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are an interesting team heading into 2021 at No. 16 in the initial NFL Power Rankings. If Aaron Rodgers leaves Green Bay through trade or retirement, the Vikings become the leader in the NFC North clubhouse. That also quickly becomes the most underwhelming division in football. Justin Jefferson broke out in All-Pro fashion as a rookie.
They added Christian Darrisaw to the offensive line in Round 1 and upgraded a previously nameless defensive line. The additions of Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and the return of Danielle Hunter transform this defense.
15) Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have a case for the best-coached football team on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. They ranked 10th in offensive and defensive efficiency in 2020, leading them to an 11-5 record.
Unfortunately, they enter 2021 with a reclamation project at the most important position in sports. The 49.6 total QBR for Carson Wentz last season ranked 28th of 33 eligible quarterbacks. Hopefully, for the Colts, head coach Frank Reich can help Wentz return to his 2017 form when he dominated against pressure and on third-and-long.
14) New Orleans Saints
The Saints deployed an elite defense in 2020 and were top 10 in defensive efficiency in 2019 as well. They also boast what might be the best offensive line in the league and the best slant-route runner, too. Because this was a democracy, the Saints land just inside the top half of the initial NFL Power Rankings, fighting for a Wild Card spot.
The loss of Drew Brees might not be as significant as some think. If Sean Payton can reel in Jameis Winston just ever so slightly, and his LASIK remains intact, this could be a Tier 2 team. Unfortunately, we’ve only seen 11 pass attempts from Winston in a Saints’ uniform, and one was right to a defender.
13) Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals might be the new version of the Chargers. The Cardinals have a young, offensive-minded coach and former Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback. They have one of the best wide receivers in the league in DeAndre Hopkins and just acquired his former teammate J.J. Watt this offseason.
They already possess one of the most underrated players of the past eight years or so in Chandler Jones, giving them an outstanding pass-rush duo. If Kyler Murray takes a leap, this team will compete for a playoff spot despite playing in the NFC West.
12) Washington Football Team
Washington is somewhat the inverse of their division-rival Dallas Cowboys. The Football Team owns possibly the best defense in the league and land at No. 12 on the initial 2021 NFL Power Rankings. They’ve kept together a core of defensive linemen that is six deep.
Chase Young and Montez Sweat are some of the most athletic pass-rush combinations around. Their offense should also get a boost in 2020, replacing Alex Smith with Ryan Fitzpatrick along with Curtis Samuel and Dyami Brown.
11) San Francisco 49ers
There is a lot to be excited about with the San Francisco 49ers, but any optimism should be tempered with caution. They struggled with injuries last season, and that should even out this year. There is naturally some excitement about the potential of Trey Lance, and Jimmy Garoppolo is only a year removed from leading the team to a Super Bowl.
The problem for the 49ers is that under Kyle Shanahan they have generally been disappointing. This will be his fifth season, and in three of the previous four, they have finished below .500. Over those four seasons, the team has won 29 games from a possible 64, and 13 of those came in 2019. The potential is certainly there for a repeat of the 2019 season, but seeing the 49ers disappoint is becoming a common theme under Shanahan.
10) Dallas Cowboys
Speaking of not having questions about the quarterback, Dak Prescott looks to be already healthy enough to compete with plenty of time left before the season. The Cowboys might have the most talented offense in the NFL, but their defense still has more holes than a sea sponge.
The defensive woes should be mitigated in 2021 with an easier schedule and a less complex defensive system. The NFC East shouldn’t be as big a disaster this season, but the Cowboys should benefit from playing the Eagles and Giants twice (barring a Daniel Jones emergence).
9) Tennessee Titans
This is where things get complicated. All of the teams from here down have massive questions they must answer in 2021. Tennessee’s roster doesn’t look as appealing heading into 2021. They lost Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler, Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, and Jadeveon Clowney. They drafted Caleb Farley in Round 1, but his history of back problems is concerning, as is his rookie status at a difficult position. He also didn’t play in 2020 at Virginia Tech.
The loss of Arthur Smith is another question mark for the team. However, the one question they don’t need answering is at quarterback, which is more than we can say for the Colts, who have a better roster than Tennessee but a massive unknown at the position.
2021 NFL Power Rankings, Tier 2 | Conference Championship contenders
These teams are all within a shout of appearing in the AFC or NFC Championship Game.
8) Seattle Seahawks
Speaking of question marks, which Russell Wilson do we get in 2021? Do we get “Mr. Unlimited,” or do we get “Mr. Back Half of the 2020 Season?” For as long as Wilson is on the Seahawks, Seattle will find overall success.
Even with Wilson’s struggles at times in 2020, he finished the season with a QBR of 73.5, which was eighth in the NFL. He was an MVP frontrunner for the first part of the year. Seattle continues to zig when we say they should zag, but Wilson and the Seahawks only have one season since 2012 with less than double-digit wins.
7) Los Angeles Rams
There is certainly a lot to like about the Los Angeles Rams this season. Matthew Stafford should be an upgrade over Jared Goff, and the team lost little in terms of key contributors this offseason. The offensive line raises some question marks, as do some of the options at linebacker and safety, especially in terms of the depth at those positions.
Playing in the NFC West, which could have four teams over .500 could be a detriment for a Rams team that has had issues in cold weather. Winning the division will be crucial, and getting home field advantage through the first two rounds will also be important.
6) Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have a former MVP at quarterback and might be the most well-run organization in football. They also have one of the best cornerback duos in Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. They also at least attempted to address the lack of receiving help with the Rashod Bateman selection.
5) Cleveland Browns
The Browns might own of the best top-to-bottom depth chart in the entire league. Every level of the offense and defense has talent. The only remaining question is — how far can Baker Mayfield take them? We saw improvement from the third-year quarterback, but he must take the next step for Cleveland to become legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
The defensive line and defensive backfield both ooze unbelievable talent. If Odell Beckham Jr. — who’s only 28 years old — can regain his form, it’s tough to imagine a scarier team to face in January.
4) Green Bay Packers
As long as the Green Bay Packers have Aaron Rodgers with a chip on his shoulder, they’ll be in contention as a top-five team in the 2021 NFL Power Rankings. The same drama the Packers are dealing with now was there in the heart of the 2020 season. Somehow, that animosity between quarterback and front office didn’t negatively affect the team last year.
They have an outstanding secondary with Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos, and Darnell Savage, who are all top-25 players at their respective positions. They added Eric Stokes on Day 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft and kept Kevin King around for another season.
3) Buffalo Bills
The Bills have potentially the best overall roster in the AFC. That is why they land at No. 3 on the initial 2021 NFL Power Rankings. The difference between the Bills and the Chiefs is the disparity in quarterback play. The Chiefs have an otherworldly QB at the helm, whereas the Bills saw elite QB play from Josh Allen in 2020.
The narrative shifted on Allen last year, from an unstable athletic freak with a burly arm to a legitimate top-tier NFL quarterback. As Allen enters his fourth NFL season, there’s no reason to believe his arrow points anywhere but further up.
2021 NFL Power Rankings, Tier 1 | Super Bowl favorites
Both these teams found their way to the Super Bowl last season, and both seemed to improve in the offseason.
2) Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs participated in the past two Super Bowls, splitting the two games in the win-loss column. The Chiefs supercharged offense led by “future GOAT” Patrick Mahomes has finished second in passing efficiency the past two seasons. The team released both offensive tackles to begin the offseason due to injury, and many believed their offensive line would regress going into 2021.
They turned that around immediately, however, by trading for Ravens’ standout Orlando Brown to play left tackle. They also added Joe Thuney in free agency, drafted Creed Humphrey, and brought Kyle Long out of retirement. Their offensive line might be improved in 2021. As long as their defense can remain somewhere close to the middle of the pack, they’ll continue to win the AFC West and compete for Super Bowls.
1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s impossible to make a legitimate argument against the Buccaneers sitting on the throne of the initial 2021 NFL Power Rankings. The reigning Super Bowl champions return all 22 starters heading into 2021.
Every starter returning has never happened during the salary cap era (1994). In fact, it has only happened two other times in history. The 1977 Oakland Raiders did the same and made the AFC Championship the next season. In 1980, the Pittsburgh Steelers returned all 22 starters from the 1979 Week 1 roster and won back-to-back Super Bowls. The Buccaneers look to repeat history in 2021.
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