Idiotville 2021 NFL Preview and Week 1 picks
Dill Spears, Idiotville Productions
In my youth, the days and weeks leading to Christmas seemed to somehow be affected by a strange time dilation effect: each individual moment would be longer than the last, causing the moment of Christmas morning to get further and further away, even as it approached. Since I was, as mother said, somewhat high-strung, I’d be crawling the walls, waiting for Santa to come down the chimney and drop off the presents. I’m like that now with football season. High school football starts, I get a little twinge, the college kickoff weekend happens, I get antsy. We start doing fantasy drafts, I start pacing. Preseason ends and there’s a big layoff between the final cuts, the last fantasy draft, and that first weekend, and NFL week one is only a few days away, the hours feel like days, the minutes feel like hours. The second-hand sounds like a doomsday clock.
This year, the anticipation is exacerbated, as I’ll be part of a travelling circus, 11 Steelers faithful venturing forth from Erie, PA to Orchard Park, NY to root for our boys against the Bills on Sunday (our guy Derek, a Bills fan from way back, is also making the trek. Since he’s such a great guy, we’re allowing it). We’re holding out hope for a victory, but we’re a squad full of realists: the Bills are legitimate Super Bowl contenders for the first time in decades. The Steelers, defending AFC North Champions, are on everyone’s list of teams that should fall off after losing 4/5 of their starting offensive line to either free agency or retirement, plus edge-rushing stud Bud Dupree to the Titans. This is a season of questions for a lot of teams, and for the first time since I was in high school, way back in the early part of the 1990s, all three local NFL teams, the Bills, Browns, and Steelers, are all likely to make the playoffs again.
In the rest of the league, my expectations are more of the same, there aren’t many teams that are poised to make a huge leap. Some teams could fall off the table, especially Indianapolis, with the retirement of Phillip Rivers and his replacement, Carson Wentz, suffering an injury in the preseason. The Texans, not great last year, lost virtually every star on their roster and stand a good chance of going 0-17. My other “entering the dark times” team is the Saints. They lost Drew Brees to retirement and have replaced him with wildly inconsistent Jameis Winston, whom I’d assume is on a short leash with fan-favorite Taysom Hill waiting in the wings. Baltimore keeps losing running backs to injury, but somehow, they have the cap space to sign any and all available free agents at that position, recently adding Le’veon Bell to their practice squad to replace the injured JK Dobbins and Justice Hill.
Here’s my division winners and playoff teams for the season (Wild Card teams are marked with *):
- New England
- New York Jets
Nobody here has the defense or firepower to hang with the Bills. They have the potential and youth to be a dominant force for years to come. Josh Allen is an MVP front-runner and they finally have a good head coach. Miami is an up-and-comer, but they’re a year or so away. They’re good enough to squeak into the playoffs, but not much more. New England is in year two of a massive rebuild, but they moved in the right direction with Mac Jones. I think he’s going to wind up being the best QB in this draft when it’s all said and done. Speaking of rebuild, ladies and gentlemen, the New York Jets, the most poorly run organization in all of American sports. They’re in a constant state of teardown and build, much like the highways of Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania, where the four seasons are Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter, and Road Construction! Pennsylvania!)
People wrote the Steelers off after their collapse at the end of last year, but they have a ton of offensive firepower and a top-5 defense. If the line gels early, they win the division. If not, Cleveland runs away with it. If the Browns get hot late, watch out, they could win 13 games. Baltimore made a bunch of moves in the offseason, but they were all lateral – nothing really improved the team. Plus, they keep getting whatever was affecting San Francisco last year: some ACL-tearing virus just running through their facility. They’re down to nothing but street free agents to carry the ball right now. Cincy is a slow burn, but they’ll be better if Burrow can return after that injury. They’ve drafted well, but this group needs time to come together and learn to win.
Tennessee wins this division easily with the addition of Julio Jones to the already stacked offense, possibly winning 14 or 15 games. I’d be surprised if they don’t go 6-0 in the division. Derrick Henry is a goddamn cheat code, and if Ryan Tannehill plays like he did last year, the Titans are Super Bowl contenders this year. Indianapolis will fall off a bit – there are plenty of questions at QB. Jacksonville is rebuilding, er, building, I guess. I think Urban Meyer can make them into something. The loss of Travis Etienne will hurt them this year, but this is not a “win now” proposition in J-ville. Houston? They’ve got a slew of old guys and Deshaun Watson likely on the roster but not playing at all due to legal problems. I can see the Texans going 0-17 without being in many games.
- Kansas City
- LA Chargers*
- Las Vegas
Kansas City has a chip on their shoulder after getting smothered in the Super Bowl last year. They re-tooled the offensive line in the off-season, but they are still the class of this division. The Chargers are a hot pick to contend; to me they’re on a level with the Dolphins – good, but not quite there yet. Give them a year or two and they’ll be in the mix. The Raiders are an enigma. Perpetually mediocre. That won’t change this year. They’ll go 9-8 or 8-9 and nobody will care outside of some media and people in Las Vegas. Denver. Oh, Denver. Your best option was Teddy Bridgewater at QB. Denver is still in that post-Manning freefall, same as they were after John Elway retired. They’re not anywhere near a contender right now.
- New York Giants
If the AFC North and the NFC West are the best divisions in football, the NFC East is the most interesting. We could see virtually ANYTHING happen here. Dallas could win 13 games and run away with it. Washington could squeak in with 9 wins. The Eagles could go 5-12 and host a playoff game. Saquon Barkley could have both of his quads explode during pre-game warmups! So many things! The WFT (I hope they keep that name, it’s very Euro football) are improving by leaps and bounds under Riverboat Ron Rivera. Ryan Fitzpatrick will guide them to some wins, and they have an excellent young defense. Their owner is a complete fuck-up, so they could collapse. Dallas is healthy again, so they could return to form and win this division again. I like Dak, Zeke, and a lot of the guys they have, I’m just not convinced that their head coach is the guy for this. The Eagles are bailing wire and duct tape right now. 6 wins would be a miracle.
- Green Bay
If the NFC East is the most interesting division, this is the least interesting. The Packers had some off-season drama, surrounding their superstar QB and 2020 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. Beyond that, they essentially stood pat and will be the class of this group. They’ll clinch in about week 13, get into the playoffs, make no noise, and we’ll have a replay next spring and summer. Chicago is playing for Matt Nagy’s job, and we should see Justin Fields by week 4. It won’t help, as the Bears are 1 step forward, 2 steps back, just as they’ve been since the early-90’s. Minnesota is the Raiders of the NFC – they make noise occasionally, but nobody actually cares. The last time anyone gave a shit about the Vikings was when the Metrodome roof collapsed. The Lions are bereft of any sort of talent, but in a league with the Texans in it, they are somehow not the worst team on my radar. They’ll be the worst in the NFC. Probably find a way to beat Chicago and Minnesota once each and lose on Thanksgiving.
- Tampa Bay
- New Orleans
Tampa Bay, defending Super Bowl Champions. Doesn’t really roll off the tongue. I have them winning this division, with Carolina trading for (checks notes) Sam Darnold? Yikes. Tampa has all 22 starters back from last year’s title team. That’s insane. Everyone wants to play with TB12. If you’ve got the best NFL player ever as your leader, it’s a no-brainer, I guess. Carolina is rebuilding again. New Orleans is poised to fall off, rather precipitously with the retirement of Drew Brees, as I stated above. Atlanta is an enigma to me. They have talent, but no coaching. Offense and no defense. They could win 4 games or they could win 10. I’m leaning toward the under with them.
- LA Rams
- San Francisco*
This might be, top to bottom, the best division in the NFL. Any one of these teams could win it, but I like the Rams here. Sean McVay’s offense, coupled with a great defense, should hit their stride with Matt Stafford throwing the ball. The Seahawks have made the playoffs in all but one of Russell Wilson’s seasons there, but they’ve fallen back to the pack in recent years. I think they’re a step behind. San Francisco had what should have been a great season derailed by an insane amount of injuries to virtually every star player on their roster last year. I think all three of these teams make the playoffs. That leaves Arizona as the odd team out, and they added a ton of talent. The Cardinals are there with the Chargers and Dolphins as a team that’s on the cusp but not quite there yet.
Conference Title Games:
AFC: Buffalo over Tennessee
NFC: LA Rams over Tampa Bay
Buffalo over LA Rams
I have to go with Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes here, as he’s the most dynamic player in the league. He makes plays nobody else makes, last year’s Super Bowl aside. He was coming off an injury in the AFC Playoffs, had a decimated offensive line, and Tampa Bay just had their number that day. Mahomes has insane career stats: 4 years, 38-8 in the regular season, 66% completions, 114 TD, 24INT, passer rating of 108.7, with an insane average of 308.7 yards per game. Further breaking him down, his 8.4 yards per attempt is tops in the league over his three years as the starter, as is his 6.8 TD percentage and his infinitesimal 1.4 INT percentage over those same three years. He’s been a pro-bowl selection all three years, and first-team all-pro once, AND he was the Super Bowl MVP after Super Bowl LIV. He’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder following the disaster at the end of last year, so my expectation is that he will light up secondaries across the league en route to an MVP performance this season.
My other MVP candidates: Josh Allen, Buffalo; Derrick Henry, Tennessee.
Offensive Player of the Year:
Discounting Mahomes, as he’s my pick for MVP, I’d go with either Henry or Allen here, with Henry having the slight edge, as he’s coming off a 2,000-yard season for the Titans. Allen is the second-best QB in the NFL, and he’ll get his. I think he might be able to get this award either this year or very soon, and he should be in the mix for years to come. Henry could miss out here if he’s finally too beaten up after all the carries he’s had over the past few years.
Defensive Player of the Year:
TJ Watt, Pittsburgh. He should have won the award last year, inconceivably losing out to Rams pass-rusher Aaron Donald. Watt led the league in every single pass-rushing category in 2020 and he was NOT happy about finishing second to Donald. He got his big contract from Pittsburgh, and he’s now got to prove that he should have won the award by getting it done as the unquestioned leader of their defense on the field. Other candidates: Donald, of course; Myles Garrett, Cleveland.
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh. He’s the breath of fresh air Pittsburgh needed for new OC Matt Canada’s offense. He’s the all-world ballcarrier from Alabama who was inserted as the starter immediately and has shown some brilliance in the pre-season. I think he’s the top guy for this, and I’d think this no matter where he landed. He may not get the votes because he doesn’t have the cache that Trevor Lawrence has in Jacksonville, or Mac Jones in New England, but he’s going to be a stud.
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
This category is truly wide open, as there’s no frontline defender right now. I like Micah Parsons, LB, Cowboys, out of Penn State, for this. He’s got insane athletic ability and will be a force this year. There’s a slew of guys in contention here, including two Browns rookies, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoaha and CB Greg Newsome II. but he’s my frontrunner right before the season starts.
Week one Highway to Ham picks:
These are all pure gut picks, given with no explanation (Home team in bold):
TB (-6.5) over DAL (I picked this before the game, TB wins 31-29, so this is an L for me. Great start, Dill.)
ATL (-3.5) over PHI
PIT (+6.5) over BUF
MIN (-3.5) over CIN
SF (-7.5) over DET
TEN (-2.5) over ARZ
IND (-2.5) over SEA
LAC (-1.5) over WFT
CAR (-4.5) over NYJ
JAX (-2.5) over HOU
KC (-5.5) over CLE
MIA (+2.5) over NE
GB (-2.5) over NO
DEN (-1.5) over NYG
LAR (-6.5) over CHI
BAL (-4.5) over LV
I’ll be back next week with a Highway to Ham update and week one thoughts!