The 2021 NFL Draft season has officially passed, and as the offseason dwindles down to an end, we’re going to take a look at the AFC landscape and make playoff predictions heading into the 2021 season. Bold predictions are in store, so before you continue, you have been warned.
(Predictions are written assuming no injuries and that Aaron Rodgers is still a Packer)
1 SEED: Miami Dolphins (Projected: 14-3)
Losses: Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Dolphins have had a string of extremely successful offseasons which, in turn, helped them to a 10-6 record last year. Unfortunately for the Dolphins in 2020, a 10-6 record did not coincide with a playoff berth.
That all changes in 2021.
The Dolphins were busy again this offseason, adding Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle to an already talented receiving corps. The three-headed monster of Fuller, Waddle, and DeVante Parker is potentially one of the best in the league. Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant, and Lynn Bowden, Jr. shore up the depth chart, allowing me to confidently say defenses around the league will have a difficult time keeping them in check.
Additions to the offensive line the past two years have solidified the trenches up front. 2021 second-rounder Liam Eichenberg and 2020 first-round pick Austin Jackson look to hold down the edges. On the other side of the ball, the surprising release of Kyle Van Noy seems to have been answered with the addition of Hurricane alumni Jaelen Phillips; Phillips has a chance to have one of the brightest careers of any players drafted in 2021. Jevon Holland drafted in the second round is a luxury piece; he adds to an already deep secondary lead by all-pro Xavien Howard.
The final two pieces of the puzzle, however, are by far the most important.
Brian Flores has shown his ability to be an excellent head coach in the NFL in quickly turning the Dolphins around from where Adam Gase left them. With a winning record in his second season, Flores has this Miami team ready to take the next step.
The final, and most important piece of the puzzle, however, is Tua Tagovailoa. We all saw this one coming; regardless, he is the most important person in these playoff predictions. The Miami Dolphins can be a playoff team if Tua plays average football. The Miami Dolphins can also be the No. 1 seed in the AFC if Tua takes a step forward. I may be alone in my thinking but I believe he does. Mix in the fact that the Dolphins are an extremely well-coached team, have one of the easiest schedules in the league, have one of the most talented rosters in the league, and just like that, you have a brand new No. 1 seed no one saw coming forward.
I did warn you these playoff predictions would be bold.
2 SEED: Kansas City Chiefs (Projected: 13-4)
Losses: Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns
The Chiefs have been to the Super Bowl two years in a row. During that stretch, it seemed no other team in the league was playing the same sport as them.
That is, until they met the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With the Chiefs’ depleted offensive line, there was only so much Patrick Mahomes and that electric offense could do. They learned the hard way the value of protecting the league’s best player.
Then, for a brief moment this offseason, other teams in the AFC had some hope… that is, until they revamped the entire offensive line adding Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown Jr. The Chiefs love manipulating the seemingly nonexistent salary cap, and in doing so, they have built a team that has virtually no weaknesses. The only reason they aren’t listed as the No. 1 seed in these current playoff predictions is that the rest of their division has gotten better. I’m looking at you, Justin Herbert, and Brandon Staley.
The Chiefs are still the team to beat in the AFC. Until someone does that in the playoffs, that will not change.
However, that doesn’t mean that they will be the top seed.
3 SEED: Baltimore Ravens (Projected: 13-4)
Losses: Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers
The Ravens had issues heading into the draft.
Coming out of the draft, I don’t know if any team identified and addressed their issues better than the Ravens. Rashod Bateman has all the tools to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL. The Ravens have not had a true No. 1 wide receiver since Anquan Boldin or Derrick Mason, and have never drafted one; Torrey Smith was great, but he wasn’t a top guy.
Losing Orlando Brown, Jr. looks bad on paper. Trading him to the only team who has consistently been better than them the past two seasons looks even worse. However, when you break down the trade, it works out very well for both sides.
The Ravens get Ronnie Stanley back on the left side this year after he missed 10 games in 2020. Adding Alejandro Villaneuva to be a swing tackle while Ronnie recovers provides intangible value as well. However, filling in the shoes of DJ Fluker is where we find his true value. Villanueva simply has to be better than the combination of Fluker and Tyre Phillips that we saw in 2020. If he can do that, Ravens fans will be smitten. Luckily for Villaneuva, with the addition of Kevin Zeitler to the right guard position, life should be easier on that side of the line.
There are two ways in which the Ravens will not live up to expectations in the 2021 season.
The first is if the pass rush doesn’t get home. Losing Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue is massive. In response, the Ravens did their job by adding a pass rusher in the first round in Odafe Oweh. However, if any position group on this team is going to let down the Ravens, it would be the pass rush. The other thing that could potentially slow them down is injuries, for which these predictions won’t account.
4 SEED: Indianapolis Colts (Projected: 10-7)
Losses: Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, Tennesee Titans, Los Angeles Rams
The Colts have put together a very impressive roster. They made the playoffs last season and gave the 13-3 Buffalo Bills all they could handle. Heading into 2021 the roster is very similar to the playoff team they built last season.
One big difference is who is leading the team on offense.
Phillip Rivers was much better last year than most people gave him credit, so the shift to Carson Wentz in 2021 will be an interesting one. Those who expect Wentz to return to his MVP form may be misguided, but it isn’t a far-fetched idea to expect Wentz to be much better in 2021 than he was in 2020. The Colts are likely a playoff team in 2021, regardless of how well Wentz plays; but, depending on how well he plays, they can be much more dangerous than they were in 2020. Based on context clues, you can probably tell in these playoff predictions that I’m not super-high on the Wentz MVP wagon. Call me a doubter, but it is more likely we see the Carson Wentz of 2020 than 2017.
The addition of Kwity Paye to this defensive front will pay dividends this season and in the future. I have the Colts at 10-7, but with the talent they have on this roster, if Wentz plays better than expected, they can easily reach 12-13 wins this coming season.
5 SEED: Buffalo Bills (Projected: 13-4)
Losses: New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Buffalo Bills have a loaded roster. The only issue is that regression is inevitable.
Josh Allen had an MVP season last year, and if Aaron Rodgers didn’t have one of the best seasons in NFL history, he may have been the NFL MVP. Unfortunately for Allen, he won’t be as good this season. If you look at the last five league MVPs, every player not named Tom Brady has had significant regression the following season. Allen falls into this category, even though he did not actually win the 2020 MVP award.
This is not me saying Josh Allen isn’t a top-five QB—he absolutely is—but this season will not go as well as 2020.
The Bills took a massive step forward last season, winning their first playoff game since 1995 and making it all the way to the AFC Championship game. Unfortunately for the Bills, the perks of success also bring a target on your back. Outside of the Chiefs, every team will circle the Bills on their schedule, especially the Patriots and Dolphins. They also have a more difficult schedule, which may not slow them down too much; but when the Dolphins have steadily improved and have an easier schedule, it spells a Wild Card season for the Bills.
Coming down to the wire, I see the easier schedule for the Dolphins being the leading factor in their winning the division. Both rosters are loaded with talent, but winning the division two years in a row is challenging, and winning back-to-back division titles in the AFC for anyone not named the New England Patriots feels like uncharted territory these days.
6 SEED: Cleveland Browns (Projected: 11-6)
Losses: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers
The Cleveland Browns are making consistently smart decisions. (Yeah, don’t worry it sounds weird to me, also.) Kevin Stefanski won Coach of the Year in 2020, and deservedly so.
However, contrary to the rest of the NFL world, that doesn’t mean the Browns are automatically cured of all that has haunted them in the past.
Signing Jadeveon Clowney and John Johnson, and drafting Greg Newsome II in the first round all made sense. Another sign these aren’t the same old Browns. This defense will look much better than it did in 2020, and adding that to one of the most consistent and explosive offenses in the league, sounds like an automatic playoff berth.
Baker Mayfield played very good football last year. He did exactly what the Browns needed him to do: be efficient and not make mistakes. But, do not forget, this offense is centered around Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and the offensive line.
Outside of injuries or just a total Browns-esque collapse, I have a hard time seeing the Browns missing the playoffs this season—but they won’t be as good as everyone else has built them up to be.
7 SEED: Tennessee Titans (Projected: 10-7)
Losses: Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Rams, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers
This spot could be filled by 3-4 different teams. I was between the Patriots, Chargers, Steelers, Raiders, and Titans for this final spot.
Tannehill has been excellent over the past year-and-a-half, and he showed last season that he fully deserved his contract extension. Most talk about Derrick Henry all day—and rightfully so—but before Tannehill became the starter in 2019, Derrick Henry was not rushing as efficiently as he did the entirety of the 2020 season. In short, without Tannehill, Derrick Henry would not have rushed for 2,000 yards last season. Yet, you would never know that if you only paid attention to major NFL networks.
I would not be surprised if they scored over 30 points-per-game once again in 2021. If anything, I would almost be surprised if they didn’t. The trio of Tannehill, Henry, and A.J. Brown is near unstoppable. Adding future Hall-of-Famer Julio Jones to this offense seems almost unfair.
However, the Titans defense cannot stop anyone.
If you did not know this, look up historically-bad defenses when it comes to third-down conversion percentages and you will understand a little better. Caleb Farley was the right pick in the first round, but drafting EDGE Rashad Weaver—charged with simple assault a day before the draft—isn’t the best look.
The Titans have issues, but they have enough firepower on offense to come out and still make the dance in these playoff predictions.
Almost every year, a team comes out of the woodwork and has much more success than expected.
In 2019, the Baltimore Ravens took the league by storm, winning 12 straight games en route to a 14-2 record and No. 1 overall seed. Last year, the Buffalo Bills were not even a lock to win the AFC East, and yet, they finished the season 13-3. Josh Allen had an MVP-caliber season and Stefon Diggs led the league in receiving.
Who knows what 2021 will bring? What I know is that, just based on these playoff predictions, I cannot wait to see how everything will unfold.
Is it September yet?