Football is back. Week One of the 2021 NFL season is upon us. With it, predictions that will inevitably be dismantled by injuries, upsets, and good, old-fashioned chaos. Super Bowl LVI will cap off the most wonderful time of the year, but who will we see in Sofi Stadium in February? In honor of NFL kickoff and the start of a (hopefully) wild season, I present four potential Super Bowl matchups. These scenarios range from most probable (or at least, least controversial) to only-if-hell-freezes-over.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Kansas City Chiefs
The same Super Bowl matchup two years in a row is also the most boring prediction. However, the two teams with the highest currents odds to win the Super Bowl seem like the safest bets for the “Most Probable” category.
Tampa Bay returns all 22 starters from their Super Bowl LV winning team. That includes the defensive line that chased Patrick Mahomes all over the field and ranked second in DVOA over the regular season. They also return conqueror-of-time Tom Brad. Their talent is supplemented by the fourth easiest schedule in the league and their 100% vaccination rate. The only great risk for catastrophe is injuries.
The Chiefs made the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year in 2020. Given the depth of talent returning in 2021, they are primed for a third straight appearance. Though the gap seemed to close ever-so-slightly between the Chiefs and everyone else last year (8 of their wins were decided by a single score), Patrick Mahomes will keep them comfortably in the win column. Their campaign for a second Lombardi trophy in three years will be made easier if the revamped offensive line does a better job of protecting Mahomes than in their last outing.
Los Angeles Rams vs. Buffalo Bills
The story line of this one speaks to me – the offense that was supposed to be versus the one that is.
I pick the Rams over the Packers here. The Rodgers drama, Green Bay’s offensive line concerns, and head coach Matt Lafleur’s *ahem* questionable decision-making in the final minutes of a particularly opportune playoff game last year all give me concern for their ability to finally get past the NFC Championship.
The Rams come off a year in which they claimed the top-ranked defense in the league. They have let up the fewest points and yards over the past three seasons. With a more consistent player under center in Matthew Stafford, who requires less hand-holding at the line of scrimmage, the star-studded Rams’ offense has greater potential to live up to head coach Sean McVay’s vision. Los Angeles fails to earn greater confidence here primarily due to the insecurity of such a star-heavy team. Should the defense lose Aaron Donald or Jalen Ramsey to injury, or should McVay be placing too much confidence in Stafford (as he did Goff, to the tune of $134M), this team could sputter, especially in a stacked NFC West.
The Bills face an uphill climb with their historic struggles, tough performance in last year’s AFC Championship game, and the challenge Josh Allen faces in living up to his best season yet. However, the Bills are such a popular “bold prediction” choice for the big game in February, I wonder if we can even call it bold anymore.
The hype is not unfounded. MVP runner-up Josh Allen is looking to level up his game yet again. He could still improve in his decision-making and calling protections. With heavy investment in the defense leading to a much deeper front seven, last year’s second-ranked offense will benefit from not having to bail out their D. The Bills also return 21 starters from their AFC East winning team in 2020. The key for them will be staying healthy and avoiding the shuffling that plagued their offensive line in the later part of the season.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Chargers
There’s a lot to love with these two teams. If only they didn’t face some pretty insurmountable hurdles in their climb to SB LVI.
The Cardinals fumbled two opportunities to make the playoffs last season, primarily because of Kyler Murray’s struggle with injuries. Murray is the strength of the Arizona team, and it would likely take an MVP-caliber season from him in order to carry the Cardinals as far as the Super Bowl. Murray has proven himself to be a dynamic talent, especially in regards to evading pressure. He has a great supporting cast in Deandre Hopkins, AJ Green, and preseason-star Rondale Moore. The addition of JJ Watt to the defense is a huge upgrade and great complement to Chandler Jones. However, Kliff Kingsbury and Co. land in the toughest division in football, which has upgraded across the board this offseason. While the offenses of the 49ers and Rams look to be reinvigorated by new quarterbacks, the defense from LA and the balance from the Seahawks look like problems.
The Chargers became a fan favorite last season, not only for their consistently wacky and down-to-the-wire games, but also due to the unexpected and abrupt rise of rookie QB Justin Herbert. Herbert impressed with his arm talent, calm demeanor, and ability to escape pressure (of which he faced a lot), achieving a record-breaking 31 TDs and earning himself Offensive Rookie of the Year. No longer a rookie and now working behind an upgraded offensive line (featuring first-team All-Pro Corey Linsley and first-round pick Rashawn Slater), Herbert will continue to soar and develop in his sophomore season with LA. However, the Chargers are unlucky to share the AFC West with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. With an inexperienced new head coach in Brandon Staley, a deep run into the playoffs seems out of reach.
Only If Hell Freezes Over
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Who knows, it’s the NFL! Anything can happen on any given Sunday!
Sure. This won’t happen. But, the bad teams deserve a look too and these two have some upside among those looking ahead to 2022.
I’ll show some support to Jihad who had the Eagles as his top sleeper team. Jalen Hurts has shown improvement in training camp after a tumultuous rookie season and will certainly have a fantastic target to lean on in Heisman winner Devonta Smith. Philadelphia’s most promising players also being two of the newest doesn’t inspire confidence in a playoff run. That is especially true when the rest of the Eagles’ roster is pretty uninspiring. The Eagles’ greatest strengths are in the lack of strength in their division and schedule as a whole. They have the easiest slate of seventeen games in the league, and only face three teams that were above .500 last year. The infamously atrocious NFC East could reproduce their calamity of a season in 2020. That would open the door for a team with a particularly light out-of-division schedule to win some games and go 7-9 to win the division.
Cincinnati is thrilled to have former National Champion and Heisman winner Joe Burrow back after a devastating injury in his promising rookie season. With Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Ja’Marr Chase as targets, Burrow has a shot at breathing new life into the Bengals’ offense. This all depends on his offensive line’s ability to keep him upright (a big question mark) and likely some surprising losses across the AFC North. Cincinnati would need help to be competitive in the playoffs, but because they have good pieces (plus I’m a big Joe Burrow stan). I’ll say it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
At the start of every NFL season, fans submit their picks for the next team to hoist the Lombardi trophy and the next to pick number one overall. Injuries, out-of-the-blue upsets, and now, COVID protocols, can drastically change the trajectory of teams and render our predictions foolish. These potential matchups for Super Bowl LVI range from accurate to almost certainly impossible. In a game as volatile as football, who knows who could end up on top at the end of year? Right or wrong, it’s always fun to speculate about what chaos could occur. Happy Week One!