Predictions for 2021-22 NFL season, playoffs, Super Bowl LVI, awards

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I’m picking a Rams-Bills Super Bowl. Obvious rejoinder: What’s wrong with Kansas City and Tampa Bay? You had them ranked 1-2 in the spring. The answer is, Nothing. I really liked the Bills and Rams when I went to their camps. I think it’s Buffalo’s breakthrough year, and I think Matthew Stafford gives the Rams the kind of offensive confidence and explosiveness they haven’t had since we all thought Jared Goff was The Answer, in early 2018. More about each in a moment, and some explanations.

Here’s how I see the pennant races, with the wild cards asterisked and teams not in the playoffs last year marked with a # sign:

AFC Seeds
1 Buffalo
2 Kansas City
3 Tennessee
4 Cleveland
5 New England*#
6 L.A. Chargers*#
7 Baltimore*

Wild Card: Kansas City over Baltimore, Chargers over Tennessee, New England over Cleveland.
Divisional: Buffalo over L.A. Chargers, Kansas City over New England.
Conference: Buffalo 27, Kansas City 25.

NFC Seeds
1 Tampa Bay
2 Green Bay
3 L.A. Rams
4 Dallas#
5 San Francisco*#
6 New Orleans*
7 Seattle*

Wild Card: Green Bay over Seattle, L.A. Rams over New Orleans, San Francisco over Dallas.
Divisional: Tampa Bay over San Francisco, L.A. Rams over Green Bay.
Conference: L.A. Rams 30, Tampa Bay 27.

Super Bowl LVI, at Los Angeles, Feb. 13, 2022: L.A. Rams 33, Buffalo 24.


Bills quarterback Josh Allen; Rams coach Sean McVay and quarterback Matthew Stafford. (Getty Images/2)

Ten Things About My Picks

1. Toughest call: not picking Tampa in the NFC. I can’t tell you what I don’t like about Tampa Bay, because there’s not much to quibble with about the ’21 Bucs. It’s a better team, assuming all minds are right, than the ’20 Bucs, winners of the Super Bowl by 22 points. As I’ll make clear, this is more about liking the Rams than disliking the Bucs. I will not be remotely surprised if the Bucs make it back to a second straight Super Bowl. I get the primary reasons—every significant player returns, Tom Brady’s back, Brady’s not going to let complacency ooze in, and Brady’s so freaky he’s not going to hit the age wall at 44—but there’s another one. Edge-rusher Shaq Barrett says lots of guys on defense want their 15 minutes of greatness too. Even after playing great in the Super Bowl, Barrett told me this summer, “I left too many plays on the field. If I make those plays, I’m Super Bowl MVP. Our hunger actually is coming from the fact we know everybody’s back. We all want to find a way to get on the field so our guys are gonna come out here and show it every day so they can carve a role out on the offense and defense for themselves. Coach [Bruce Arians] is like, ‘You can’t come to the field if you ain’t hungry and ready to go to prove yourself every day.’ “ Sure sounds good.

2. Bullish on the Rams. Let me give you an illustration about where the Rams have been, and where I think they’re going. The best iteration of the Sean McVay Rams came in the first 12 games of 2018. Remember the bombs-away Rams? With Goff proving (or so we thought) what a good deep-ball thrower he was, particularly on that Thursday night at the Coliseum when he strafed the Vikings? The Rams then, and the Rams since:

The first 12 games of 2018: Rams 11-1, averaging 34.9 points per game.

The 41 games since (including playoffs): Rams 24-17, averaging 23.9 points per game.

I think we’re going to see a Rams offense like that one in 2018. A couple of differences between then and now. That year, the Rams had the league’s 19th-rated defense. This year, the Rams are coming off a season when they had the top-rated defense in the league. Gone is coordinator Brandon Staley, who got the Chargers’ head job, but the three best defensive players are back: all-world Aaron Donald and one of the game’s best cornerback tandems, Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams. And the quarterback is new and improved over last year’s model.

Simply put, Matthew Stafford gives McVay, one of the smartest offensive brains in the game, the first chance in his five seasons as coach to have confidence in calling everything on his play sheet. Everything. Stafford has the arm to make every throw, and the brain to know when to make one throw versus another. One coach who has faced Safford multiple times told me on my camp tour he thinks the marriage between Stafford and McVay will work well. “Stafford with Sean is going to be fantastic,” this coach said. “Sean’s been waiting for a guy who can execute everything he wants to call.” As I wrote in my training camp report on the Rams a month ago, McVay saw Goff as a student, and he sees Stafford as a peer. In his four months inside the Rams’ building, Stafford has become almost an extension of the coaching staff, and he’s done it organically, without usurping anyone’s authority. He trades ideas with McVay about the pass game. When the Rams traded for running back Sony Michel, it was Stafford, on a day off, who took it on himself to mentor Michel personally with a deep-dive into the offense. Last week, the Rams had their players vote for two offensive, two defensive and one special-teams captains. There were two unanimous picks: Donald, of course. And Stafford. That’s the impact he’s made in his first four months on the team.

So it’s the honeymoon period. I like taking teams on the way up, such as Tampa Bay last year. The Rams are on the way up. Now, they’re top-heavy, and a couple of major non-quarterback injuries would hurt the Rams more than, say, the Bucs. They’re playing with fire at left tackle in a 17-game season, with Andrew Whitworth turning 40 in December. You don’t find many 40-year-old left tackles in football. In fact, I can’t think of a single one in recent history. Overall, they’re thin. The Rams will need some luck from the injury gods to be playing February football at home. But I’ll take my chances with them.

3. Second straight team winning the Super Bowl at home—after it never happening before. I’m curious what kind of home-field advantage the Rams will have. Will Angelenos jump on the bandwagon, which L.A. is very good at doing? My guess is that by January, when the Rams have a home playoff game or two, front-running fans will be pretty revved up about their team.

4. It’s time for the Bills . . . assuming they keep Covid at bay. Tough pick here, because the Bills lost to KC by nine and 14 last year and we still don’t have proof that the Achilles heel of the Buffalo franchise, the pass rush, is any good. At least one of the three high edge picks in the last two drafts—A.J. Epenesa, Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham—needs to strike fear into the hearts of offensive coordinators by midseason. Big, big need.

Even with an abysmal pass-rush last year, the Bills were 15th in the league in defense. I trust Sean McDermott to make that ranking appreciably better. So much of Buffalo’s fate rests with Josh Allen. I like that. Let’s examine Allen’s path to this moment. He played at a small California high school and wasn’t recruited by a single major-college program. He spent a year at a California JuCo. He went to a smaller college program, Wyoming. He was hurt parts of his first two years in Buffalo. Last year, his first healthy season with a top receiver group, his completion percentage went up 10 percent, he got the Bills to the AFC title game, and earned one of the biggest deals in NFL history.

What hasn’t he done well? Performed well late against the best team in AFC. Buffalo lost to Kansas City twice last year, never led either game in the second half, and Allen led the team to only two touchdowns in the two second halves against KC. In the offseason, Allen worked on control. It’s clear he’s talented enough, throwing and running, to be great for a long time. But even he admits he’s tried to do too much late in games early in his career. “Control” is a bit of an abstract term here, but to Allen it means ratcheting down the emotions, don’t force anything, trust the people around you more. The addition of the wily Emmanuel Sanders (if he can give Buffalo a good year at 34) and emergence of Jake Kumerow as a big target—supplementing Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley—mean this is the deepest receiver group the Bills have had in years.

Allen is 25. After playing off-off Broadway as a quarterback for years, now he understands what it takes to win in the big time. Now he’s just got to do it. I’m betting he’s ready.

As for Covid, the Bills have had their issues; I could tell on my visit to camp in August it’s still something that could plague this team, because guys like Beasley won’t back down from their I’m-not-getting-vaxxed stances. They’d better be careful. A positive test by an unvaccinated player on, say, a Friday puts him out for two games. It’s football roulette. I think the Bills can overcome it, but they don’t sell insurance for these kinds of things.

5. Kansas City has a few issues. I’m not as worried about the brand-new offensive line as I am about receiver depth. Chris Conley and Sammy Watkins have provided that in recent years; Conley left in 2019 and Watkins decamped to Baltimore last spring, leaving an inordinate pressure on two wispy speed guys, Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, to stay healthy for 17 games. Travis Kelce turns 32 next month. The spectacular tight end has missed just two games in the past seven years, and that run of good health must continue for Patrick Mahomes to have the kind of MVP season we’re accustomed to seeing. Having thrown those caution flags, there’s too much to like about this franchise, and this coaching staff, and this front office. Plus, Buffalo has to prove it can beat the AFC Kings. The last time the Bills beat Kansas City, in November 2017, Tyrod Taylor was throwing to Zay Jones for Buffalo, Alex Smith was handing to Kareem Hunt for Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes was a green DNP for KC, and Josh Allen, the Wyoming quarterback, was preparing for his last college game, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Central Michigan.

6. Teams I like: Bullish on the Justin Herbert-powered CHARGERS, with a big if: Derwin James and Joey Bosa, if healthy, give the Chargers the nucleus of a playoff defense. But James has missed 27 starts the last two years and Bosa six. The idea of Brandon Staley playing chess with those two pieces for 17 weeks is tantalizing, but, well, you know.

• I love the depth of the BROWNS, and I picked them to edge the Ravens in the AFC North because of it, particularly with all the soft-tissue injuries plaguing Baltimore right now. I think an obvious impact player early for Cleveland will be free-agent safety John Johnson, who called signals for the Rams’ number one D last year.

• It won’t surprise me to see Ben Roethlisberger play great and the STEELERS win 11. The neophyte offensive line is the key there.

• Hard not to like the PATRIOTS, with that oppressive and very deep front seven. They’ll be one of the fun teams to watch, and not only because they’ve gone all-in on Mac Jones.

7. Teams I’m cool on: I want to like the COLTS, but their two most important players, Carson Wentz and Darius Leonard, aren’t vaccinated, and Wentz just missed five days because of a close contact with an infected person. It seems incredible that, after missing five days of work with his new team on the heels of missing significant time due to foot surgery, that Wentz won’t take the shot. (A vaxxed player who has been a close contact with an infected person doesn’t sit unless he tests positive. An unvaxxed player sits for five days, no exceptions.) “Trust me, I have weighed a lot of things,” Wentz said. “I know what is at stake. It is just where I am at and where I am at with my family.” Does Wentz really know what is at stake? And is it really worth passing on an overwhelmingly safe injection for whatever reason he won’t take it? But that’s America in 2021.

• Ditto the VIKINGS, with the unvaccinated and inflexible Kirk Cousins. Imagine Jacob Eason starting a couple of big games for the Colts because of Covid, or Sean Mannion in Minnesota. Utter madness.

• I didn’t pick the DOLPHINS to make the playoffs, simply because I don’t have enough evidence to trust Tua Tagovailoa. Not saying he won’t be good; I just haven’t seen it.

• The RAIDERS are tired of hearing they’re 19-29 in Gruden Era II, but facts are fact. I think they’re still suspect at edge-rusher, despite the Yannick Ngakoue investment in free-agency, and at corner.

8. I won’t shock you with the awards. Here goes:

• MVP: 1. Matthew Stafford, QB, Rams; 2. Josh Allen, QB, Bills; 3. Tom Brady, QB, Bucs.

A healthy Stafford, in a 17-game season and with that Rams backfield, could be the first quarterback to throw for 6,000 yards in a year.

• Offensive player: 1. Matthew Stafford, QB, Rams; 2. Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings; 3. Nick Chubb, Browns.

Three backs—Cook, Chubb, Derrick Henry—will rush for more than 1,500 yards.

• Defensive player: 1. T.J. Watt, edge, Steelers; 2. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams; 3. Justin Madubuike, DT, Ravens.

This was Watt’s award last year. This year he leaves no doubt. Watch Madubuike explode this year.

• Offensive rookie: 1. Kyle Pitts, TE, Falcons; 2. Trey Smith, G, Chiefs; 3. Najee Harris, RB, Steelers.

Smith? A guard? Second? I know he has zero shot. But if he’s a top 10 NFL guard, and he could be, give him his due.

• Defensive rookie: 1. Micah Parsons, LB, Cowboys; 2. Pat Surtain Jr., CB, Broncos; 3. Trevon Moehrig, S. Raiders.

Worry about a guy who didn’t play last season, but Parsons has blown up Cowboy camp from the start.

• Coach: 1. Sean McDermott, Bills; 2. Sean McVay, Rams; 3. Bill Belichick, Patriots.

If the Bills beat back a strong AFC group for home-field, McDermott will be the beneficiary in this vote.

• Comeback player: 1. Derwin James, S, Chargers; 2. Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys; 3. Jameis Winston, QB, Saints.

James has played five games in the last two seasons. If he stars, doesn’t he have to beat out Dak?

9. Schedules gave me pause. Usually, picking at this time of year, I don’t pay much attention to the schedules of teams. I figure the teams we think might be really good, and vice versa, fluctuate a lot by October. But for home-field in the AFC, for instance, I considered it. I looked at the six games Buffalo should win (Houston, Jacksonville, Carolina, Atlanta, Jets, Jets), then tried to find six KC is likely to win—Philadelphia, Giants, Denver, Denver, Cincinnati and maybe Vegas at home. But Denver could have a very good defense and steal one win from KC, and the Raiders could do the same (composite score last year: Vegas 71, Kansas City 67). Buffalo’s schedule looks more conducive to winning home-field. Now, Tennessee (four games with the Jags and Texans, a fifth at the Jets) could be in the running for the top seed too. In the NFC, the slates for Tampa Bay and Green Bay looked like a wash to me, with some logical division wins built in.

10. My last decision: Dallas over Washington. WFT could have a top-five defense, and that alone might be good enough to win an NFC East stuck in mediocrity. Dallas, though, will have a top-five offense, and I think Micah Parsons the playmaker and Dan Quinn the playcaller move the D from horrendous (29.6 points per game allowed last year) to tolerable (maybe 24 ppg). The NFL did its best to make the NFC East the division of mystery, however. Washington plays one division game before Dec. 10, and finishes this way: Cowboys, at Eagles, at Cowboys, Eagles, at Giants. The height of weirdness: WFT plays Dallas and Philadelphia four times in a 22-day span.