top of page

7 Up, 7 Down: Playoffs? Playoffs?


(image credit: Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Written by: Joseph Yun


The NFL every year is a league of increasing parity, which means like Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states, “What must go up, must come down”. Which teams are primed to make the jump up into the playoffs? Which teams could they possibly replace in the postseason derby?


UP


1. New England Patriots


- After a down 2020 season by the lofty “Patriot Way” standards, Bill Belichick and company return to assume their rightful throne among the elites of the AFC. They loaded up during the offseason with key assets like Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, Matt Judon, Hunter Henry, and the intriguing Kendrick Bourne. Plus they get a majority of their all-star opt-outs back in the fold. The biggest question that looms large is the quarterback “battle” between a seemingly rejuvenated Cam Newton and first-round rookie Mac Jones. It might be a question of when not if for the Jones era to begin in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Another thorny issue that needs to be ironed out is the Stephon Gilmore saga. New England’s offensive line should be much improved with the addition of Trent Brown on the cheap and with emerging sophomore Michal Onwenu showing out. Can the DC tandem of Jerod Mayo (a former Patriot and rising star in the coaching industry) and Steve Belichick keep the defense humming with all its big pieces returning? All things considered, things are looking up for the perennial villainous kings of the AFC to return to their empirical ways.


2. San Francisco 49ers


- A simple return to health and keeping guys healthy would do the trick for Kyle Shanahan’s charges. They were ravaged by injuries and had the unique circumstance of being frozen out of their home facilities by the state of California’s COVID19 protocols in late 2020. The Shanahan system is world-famous for pumping out stratospheric offensive firepower every which way. It’s about to get a boost with the running element of much-hyped rookie Trey Lance, which wasn’t seen much under the “current” Jimmy Garoppolo regime. Like the Patriots above them, it’s only a matter of time when Lance gets his shot at being the next great quarterback from the Bay. The offensive and defensive fronts are loaded down with immense talent. I particularly like the lowkey underrated Alex Mack signing as the veteran center helps stabilize things and is intimately familiar with the Shanahan system from his stellar time in Atlanta. Trent Williams is aging but aging gracefully like a fine wine. It can be argued that the 49ers boast the top defensive line talent in all of the NFL. Star linebacker Fred Warner is due for a megabucks extension soon. The 49ers return to the playoffs by being significantly healthier because they can’t possibly be snakebit that bad again, right?


3. Los Angeles Chargers


- One of the most snakebit franchises has a new life with a budding quarterback sensation in Justin Herbert and a new friend to help block for him in Rashawn Slater. Sure, there’s a new coaching staff in town but it comes highly regarded with Sean McVay acolyte Brandon Staley heading operations. The defense, brimming with talents such as Joey Bosa, Jerry Tillery, and Uchenna Nwousu, should be back to full strength with Derwin James back healthy and sleeper linebacker Kenneth Murray getting his feet underneath him as the defensive general. The schedule is a bit rough but the Chargers have enough offensive firepower to counteract it and they were seemingly super close to a playoff berth as always. Herbert and company do just enough this season to sneak into the tournament and gain valuable experience for the young gun.


4. Dallas Cowboys


- Yeah the defense is still a bit on the problematic side but with Dan Quinn in a more comfortable role of DC than his head coaching tenure, it should get better than the previous coordinator. A top-five offense in terms of skill level and the return of newly rich man Dak Prescott should be enough for America’s Team to win an eminently winnable division in 2021. The defense has to be better than whatever that was in 2020, right? The retirement of standout linebacker Sean Lee might be an interesting storyline if Micah Parsons’ rookie experience doesn’t go to plan, especially considering the fragility of LVE and the inconsistency of Jaylon Smith. Remember this team was somehow in playoff contention last season despite losing Dak pretty early on.


5. Arizona Cardinals


- Yeah they play in a brutally tough division but they were close in year two of the Kliff Kingsbury regime. The Cardinals high-powered offense makes that leap in year three under the guidance of ascendant star quarterback Kyler Murray and his fleet of weapons which now includes a veteran looking for one last big-time hurrah in AJ Green. The defense added future Hall of Fame defensive end JJ Watt to pair along with Chandler Jones (provided they figure out that contract situation). Isaiah Simmons was finally unleashed as the versatile chess piece late last season and showed signs of future greatness. Malcolm Butler comes over from Tennessee to add to a lowkey promising secondary. It will be fun to watch this offense put up video game numbers on a weekly basis.


6. Las Vegas Raiders


- Oh those beloved unconventional Raiders. They just missed the playoffs last season and look to be primed to make it into the dance should the rival Chargers falter under a rookie head coach. The Broncos still have some issues to sort out on offense with a pretty good defense. The Raiders have a competent quarterback leading an offense full of youthful weapons and that usually gets you to the playoffs. Defensively they have a few pieces that are intriguing like Yannick Ngakoue, Jonathan Abram, and rookie safety Trevon Moehrig. Darren Waller and Henry Ruggs III are somewhat of a good start. Second place in the division is up for grabs and the Raiders can clinch it again.


7. Minnesota Vikings


- The Vikings were oh so close last season and should be in contention again in 2021. Yes, Kirk Cousins isn't the greatest quarterback in the world but he’s serviceable enough to lead a team into the postseason. Minnesota has one heck of a team around him that features the likes of Adam Thielen, rookie sensation Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and a stout offensive line. The defense ain’t too shabby either with Danielle Hunter (a recent threat to hold out but well-compensated now), a standout linebacker corps featuring Eric Kendricks + Anthony Barr, plus a secondary full of key pieces like Harrison Smith, Patrick Peterson, and Jeff Gladney. Head coach Mike Zimmer returns as well to lead a tough, physical, and grinding football team. They are slated to compete for second place in the division but if the ongoing Aaron Rodgers melodrama derails the Packers (aka “a complicated fella” being traded), the Vikings are well-positioned to win the volatile NFC North in that case.


Down


1. Pittsburgh Steelers


- The Steelers had an offensive line that was tragic in a smoke and mirrors type of season in which they started 11-0. They did next to nothing in terms of replacing line talent in that regard during the offseason. Big Ben has been on the path of a well-earned retirement for years with various physical ailments plaguing him. He hasn’t been the same Ben that we all know and it’s clear that he’s in the 18th tee box of a Hall of Fame career. Again, Pittsburgh did not choose to repair its offensive line to help prop up the old warhorse and might pay for it despite having a stellar talent-laden defense. Did they not notice that some of the league’s best EDGE rushers are in their own freaking division? In an extremely tough AFC North, they could slip to third place behind eternal blood rivals Baltimore and the surging Browns.


2. Carolina Panthers


- Insanely tough division that includes the reigning Super Bowl champions and a team that also features on this list. The Panthers were surprise contenders last season but with Joe Brady stretching his quarterback whisperer limits with the “haunted” Sam Darnold, it will be an interesting time in Charlotte. Carolina has the defensive pieces and the all-world Christian McCaffery coming back from injury but it all comes down to the quarterback. Can Darnold be rescued from the ghastly horrific malfeasances he endured while “learning” whatever coaching malpractice Adam Gase taught him? It will take some time to break him down and build him back up. The Panthers will be competitive at least. Second place in the division is eminently attainable if things break just right.


3. Chicago Bears


- The Bears got a likely steal of the draft when somehow Justin Fields dropped far enough for them to trade up to get him. The biggest issue at hand is how quickly can he get up to speed to supplant the affable Andy Dalton as the starter? Chicago definitely has the assets to help grow up quickly like premier WR1 Allen Robinson and RB David Montgomery plus a solid offensive line. The defense should be up to snuff and carry the day like usual with Khalil Mack and others like Eddie Goldman, Eddie Jackson, Danny Trevathan in tow. The Packers are the presumptive kings of the NFC North until proven otherwise and the Vikings will be hell on wheels. I just don’t know if the Bears can beat out the other likely third-place teams for a playoff spot while they muck about the Fields transition. They were playoff contenders with Mitchell Trubisky at the helm so who knows. A lowkey storyline that everyone is missing is the pending sale of the team and the drama between the organization and Chicago proper about a new stadium. Current mayor Lori Lightfoot wasn’t the most graceful about the issue either so it will get politically contrarian and those things tend to spill over to football operations territory.


4. Baltimore Ravens


- A perennial Super Bowl contender like the Ravens on this list? They traded away their stalwart right tackle Orlando Brown to the Chiefs due to contractual differences and didn’t adequately replace him. Not to mention left tackle Ronnie Stanley is coming off an injury that forced him to miss a ton of time. Baltimore was on the hunt for a big-name receiver like Julio Jones but only managed to land an oft-injured Sammy Watkins so their receiver room is still a question mark. Lamar Jackson is due for a life-changing megabucks extension as well so the cap room will be constrained a bit further. Can Jackson build on his ascending passing ability or is he maxed out in that regard? They do have a defense capable of containing the high-powered Chiefs but the division is tough with the Browns finally hitting on something. The Steelers will be in it for one last chase with Ben as well.


5. New Orleans Saints


- Never before in the long and storied annals of NFL history was a team so hampered by its costly financial expenditures. The Saints at one point were almost an unfathomable $100 million over the salary cap. As a result, they had to let go of key veteran pieces like Janoris Jenkins and Emmanuel Sanders. It remains to be seen how exactly they will replace Drew Brees. Will it be the versatile Taysom Hill or a more pure passer in Jameis Winston? Clearly, the Buccaneers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon so a second-place battle between the Saints and Panthers will have to suffice for the denizens of the French Quarter. How much longer can they keep on kicking the can down the road and keep the core together before they age out? Sean Payton’s waffling between Winston and Hill must stop in order for the team to be successful.


6. Miami Dolphins


- Is Tua ready to be the man full stop after an uneven rookie year at best? The Fish certainly have the weapons to help him reach his potential. The quality of the backup might have diminished some with Jacoby Brissett. Perhaps the Dolphins are the classic a year too early team that fails to deliver on the hype so soon. Defensively they have the assets to make some noise and with a coach that inspires them so that may be enough. The division will be tough to win and will run through Buffalo and a retooled Patriots team once again. A wild card berth, perhaps?


7. Seattle Seahawks


- A surprise inclusion but with the NFC West being what it is (i.e. all four teams capable of winning it), it wouldn’t be a total surprise if one team falters. The offensive line, while on the right track, has been hit or miss to put it lightly. There’s also the offseason palace intrigue looming in the background like a spectral force just waiting to pounce. I just get this unshakeable feeling that the Russell Wilson drama isn’t quite done just yet. Yes, he declared 2021 the year of “Pax Pacifica” after a few wild weeks of offseason trade speculation but the triumvirate of John Schneider, Pete Carroll, and Wilson has an uneasy truce for now. The main bone to pick was Wilson vs Carroll in terms of offensive philosophy. Carroll (Pompey) being the elder statesman reverting back to what he knows (heavy run dominance), Wilson the brash, bold general Caesar, and Schneider the Crassus (the rich dude controlling the purse strings holding it together) of the lot. In steps newly hired OC Shane Waldron, he of the McVay tribe, into the fiery cauldron of trying to balance Carroll’s run-heavy preference and Wilson’s electric talents. Otherwise, Seattle has the team capable of making a deep run in the playoffs if everything breaks just right.




Comments


bottom of page