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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...2021 NFL SEASON WINS TO WATCH!

                                        by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Continuing a tradition at TGS that covers all of the major sports, we again provide our season-wins recommended list in the NFL.  Soon enough, we'll be posting our NBA and NHL previews on these pages, and eventually get around to MLB early next spring.  For now, however, it's football time, and our best recommendations follow, with season win numbers posted along with each listed team.
 
NFC BEST BETS... In a much watered-down NFC East a season ago, the Philadelphia Eagles (6.5) could only get to 4 wins. And adding another game to the schedule in 2017 might just mean an extra loss. Things do not look pretty at the Linc, not after meddling from owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman losing his magic touch made one-time miracle worker HC Doug Pederson decide that enough was enough, and we wonder if successor Nick Sirianni knows what he's getting into. (The war drums are also already beating on WIP after the Birds' winless preseason.) Will what was one of the NFL's worst offenses last year really upgrade with Jalen Hurts, who played to mixed reviews at best in a brief late-season audition a year ago,  a risky option at QB? And when will pro football pundits recognize what a Lombardi-like masterpiece was turned ina few years ago by HC Doug Pederson, winning a Super Bowl despite one of the most-meddlesome owners in sport (Jeffrey Lurie) and a GM who caught lightning in a bottle for a few fleeting months (Howie Roseman)? Look “under” at the Linc.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong last season for the San Francisco 49ers (10.5). Especially the injury list, removing almost every key component for multiple games, some for the duration of the campaign, as it became obvious by the end of September that a repeat NFC title wasn’t in the offing. In fact, SF players lost a whopping 161.6 games due to injury, the most in the NFL the past 20 years, so keeping the physios out of the conversation will obviously be a key factor in a potential recovery to 2019 NFC title form. Though Jimmy Garoppolo hasn’t proven the most durable NFL QB, missing almost half of the regular-season games (23 of 48) the past three seasons, keep in mind that he has a sparkling 36-12 record as a starter. If the season progresses as HC Kyle Shanahan has planned, a healthy Jimmy G will be taking snaps and first-round pick Trey Lance (via North Dakota State) will watch and learn, much as Patrick Mahomes did behind Alex Smith in 2017 at Kansas City. Meanwhile, a healthier OL might once again be able to open holes as wide as one of the Bay Bridge’s toll booths for slashing Raheem Mostert, another of the injury brigade of 2020. Equally important on the stop end will be the returns of DEs Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, both added in 2019 to help super-charge a pass rush that produced 48 sacks and continually collapsed opposing pockets before last season, when the pair combined to appear in just three games. As long as the Niners stay moderately healthy,a return to the Supe is hardly out of the question. It’s an “over” for us in Santa Clara.

There are some storm clouds forming at what they now call Lumen Field, and we’re not referring to the weatherman’s usual cautions about the rain. Rather, it’s what might be up with QB Russell Wilson, who has been making more noise about perhaps wanting out of the Northwest, couching his apparent displeasure with a challenge to HC Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider to improve his supporting cast—the OL in particular, for the Seattle Seahawks (10). Whatever becomes (or doesn’t become) of any roster upgrades, some NFL insiders believe Wilson has grand plans for himself in his post-football life and might desire a higher-profile locale for his ultimate ambitions; the Seahawks might only suffice in that regard if they are serious Super Bowl contenders, which they haven’t been for a few years. Carroll, sensitive to his do-everything QB, is hoping that new o.c. Shane Waldron (recently the passing game coordinator for the Rams) will provide the boost that Wilson seeks, while Schneider arranged to trade for G Gabe Jackson from the Raiders. Appeasing Wilson seems a good idea, considering all of the hair-raisers in which Wilson’s undeniable magic has come in handy the past few years. There are other issues, as the days of the Legion of Boom defense are way back in the rear-view mirror after the Hawks were continually torched thru the air last season (ranking 31 out of 32 in pass defense) and the cornerback situation remained unresolved. The mere fact that Wilson’s long-term commitment is going to be under scrutiny by the fan base suggests it might not be business as usual in Seattle. “Under” by the Space Needle.

We’re not sure who might be on a hotter seat with the Arizona Cardinals (8.5) between GM Steve Keim and HC Kliff Kingsbury. Keim certainly put his Cardinal career on the line when sticking out his neck in a radical move in 2019 to hire Kingsbury, recently dismissed by Texas Tech, and it’s time for the the dividend to deliver this fall. Keim cannot be accused of sitting on his hands in the offseason, bringing on board all manner of potential contributors with past Pro Bowl credentials such as DE J.J. Watt (who, kif healthy, could form a devastating push from the edge with Chandler Jones), RB James Conner, C Rodney Hudson, CB Malcolm Butler, and PK Matt Prater. The Big Red was on course for its first postseason appearance in five years last autumn until a December slump that coincided with QB Kyler Murray’s sore shoulder would deny a playoff berth that seemed likely for much of the season  A potential breakthrough season from Murray, who flashed more signs that might be around the corner a year ago when passing for almost 4000 yards and running for 819 more, fueled the optimism as he figures to have mastered Kingsbury’s progressive attack in their third season together. Meanwhile, there are plenty of playmakers in the defensive fold, with the possibility of the aforementioned Watt-Jones pass-rush tandem causing nightmares for opposing QBs. The fact the Cards went from just 3 wins in the ill-fated Steve Wilks season of 2018, to 5 and then 8 wins the past two seasons for Kingsbury, suggests the trajectory is at least right to exceed 8.5 wins; look “over” in the Valley of the Sun.

While the masses seem to be dismissing the New Orleans Saints (9) simply because Drew Brees has moved into retirement, we’re obliged to remind how the Saints did the past two seasons when Brees was out, and Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, or Taysom Hill were in. Not bad; in fact, real good, with wins in 8 of 9 chances. Keep in mind that Brees did slow down somewhat by the end of his career, and New Orleans kept winning regardless, now topping the NFC South four years running, suggesting that maybe it’s HC Sean Payton who is the most important ingredient in the mix. Count shrewd GM Mickey Loomis as well after navigating some tricky salary cap waters in the offseason and keeping most of the elite-level talent in the fold and somewhat limiting the outflow. There will be new starters at QB (where Winston gets the nod out of the gate over Hill), CB, TE, LB, and P, but as noted much of the top-end components are still around, inclduign do-everything RB Alvin Kamara. If there are concerns for Payton beyond the QB situation, it’s probably with depth, as the Saints would appear to be more vulnerable to an injury rash than in past seasons. But a robust OL, big-play-defense, and the presence of Payton suggests New Orleans can make the playoffs again. “Over” at the Superdome.

It is not uncommon for a team to commit a large chunk of its salary to a starting QB; in the case of the Minnesota Vikings (9), it’s about 17%. Except we’re not talking about Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson. Instead, it’s Kirk Cousins, with all of one playoff win in his career and yet to completely justify the big-bucks deal the Vikings gave him a few years ago. In fact, there is the feeling in the Twin Cities that 2021 might be the last chance for both Cousins (signed thru 2022 but no guarantee to last that long, especially with Texas A&M rookie Kellen Mond waiting in the wings) and HC Mike Zimmer to make a deep playoff run, or inevitable changes could happen in the offseason. Defensive depth, or lack thereof, was exposed in the preseason, and Minnesota is another of many teams that simply doesn’t appear built to handle a rash of injuries. Especially on the stop end where the Vikes finished an un-ZImmer-like 27th in total defense a year ago. The offense should remain potent, but keep in mind that all among Cousins, RB Dalvin Cook, and wideouts Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson stayed relatively healthy a year ago, and Minnesota still finished below .500. It will help greatly if North rivals Detroit and Chicago struggle, which could mean four wins, but we see lots of ways that things can derail in Minneapolis. We’re looking “under” at US Bank Stadium.


AFC BEST BETS...There is a short-term feel about almost everything with the Denver Broncos (8.5), from the ownership situation (Pat Bowlen's feuding heirs came to a truce before their lawsuit against the current trustees and interpretation of dad's will went to court, with the expectation that a franchise sale, endorsed by the league, is on the way), to team prexy John Elway (one more year on his contract, and he’s already relinquished GM duties), to HC Vic Fangio (11-21 in two seasons), to countless vets on the roster signed to one-year deals. The latter means several players will be in contract years, never a bad scenario for upgraded performance. Injuries also decimated the 2020 Broncos, with key cogs like LB Von Miller and WR Courtland Sutton effectively missing the entire season. They’re now back, joined by some potentially valuable FA signings in the secondary including CBs Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, while first-round pick Patrick Surtain II from Alabama provides more depth on the corners. Meanwhile, new GM George Paton might have stolen QB Teddy Bridgewater from the Panthers for a 6th-round pick; much of the “pundit class” deemed a 6th-rounder too high of a price, to which we say horse manure; how many sixth-round picks can step in immediately at QB and win games in the NFL? If he stays in one piece, Bridgewater figures at least a slight upgrade on holdover Drew Lock, and the return of Sutton gives Bridgewater all sorts of downfield threats with second-year ex-Bama wideout Jerry Jeudy and big-play TE Noah Fant already in the fold. A major houseclean takes place if Denver doesn’t make a move into the playoffs, a main reason we think the desperate Broncos finally register an “over” this fall.

Sticking in the West, the Las Vegas Raiders (7) finally get to play in front of fans at their new Allegiant Stadium home after Wayne Newton, Celine Dion, Floyd Mayweather, and the rest of the locals were all kept outside a year ago. They didn’t miss much as the Silver & Black lost 6 of 8 in their new stadium in front of the empty seats. But even Marie Osmond can tell that 4th-year HC Jon Gruden might be running out of time, long-term contract or not, yet to deliver a winning campaign amid late-season fades the past two seasons. It is hoped that new d.c. Gus Bradley can plug some holes in a defense that was way too permissive in 2020 when allowing 30 or more points on ten different occasions. Gruden is also sticking his neck out for one more season with QB Derek Carr, yet to notch a postseason win (neither have the Raiders since 2002), who is hoping that a rebuilt OL will provide more protection. Our suspicion has long been that Gruden is now more of a caricature of himself rather than the top-line NFL coach he might have been nearly a generation ago, and some recent splintering in the front office might be a sign of cracks in the organizational foundation. We’re looking “under” across I-15 from the Luxor and Mandalay Bay.

Full credit to HC Brian Flores for making the Miami Dolphins (9.5) relevant in two seasons after it looked as if he was going to be forced to endure a tank job back in 2019 that only NBA owners like Mark Cuban could fully appreciate. But Flores refused to surrender, got the Dolphins competitive by that season’s end, and last year stayed in the playoff race until the final Sunday of the season. But we know that Flores and GM Chris Grier were contemplating after last season if they should really continue the commitment to QB Tua Tagovailoa, who was decidedly unimpressive as a rookie a year ago and outplayed by vet Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Indeed, it was “The Beard” who was more responsible for getting the Dolphins in the playoff mix, though that evaporated in the finale at Buffalo when Fitzpatrick had to sit due to Covid and Miami was non-competitive with Tua, who seemed afflicted by “Paxton Lynch-itis” (meaning dinks and dunks and rarely looking downfield) too often in his maiden run. Perhaps the recovery from the severe hip injury in his final year at Alabama had something to do with it, but Tua has to pick up the pace considerably if Miami wants to contend again in 2021. We’re not sure and suspect it might be new backup Jacoby Brissett in the lineup before the end of the season. In that scenario, ot if Tua proves an albatross around the neck of the offense, we doubt the Dolphins match last year’s 10 wins, even with the extra game on the schedule. “Under” for us at Hard Rock Stadium.

It’s about time for the Pittsburgh Steelers (8.5) to begin planning for life after Ben Roethlisberger. Now into his 18th season (where did the time go, anyway?), and two years removed from having three tendons replaced on his throwing arm, Big Ben is now a year-to-year proposition and hardly a long-term option; indeed, it’s said that the Steelers are thinking this might be the last rodeo for Roethlisberger, who himself has hinted that this might be his swansong year as well. Of course, Pittsburgh won its first 11 with Big Ben in the fold a year ago before the season unraveled in December and a humbling Wild Card round loss to the Browns, and Roethlisberger still threw 33 TD passes in 2020. Obviously, this isn’t Johnny Unitas circa 1973 with the Chargers, and the Steelers can still be formidable with Big Ben at the controls. After an adjustment phase to new o.c. Matt Canada in the offseason, sources say Roethlisberger is now totally comfy with the new terminology, even taking some unexpected snaps in preseason, and we think drafting Bama rookie RB Najee Harris in the first round (scoffed at by much of the know-it-all pundit class which doesn’t believe a first-round pick should be wasted on a runner) might be a stroke of genius if he can provide a dimension similar to another recent Crimson Tide big back, Derrick Henry. There’s a new-look OL that must jell quickly, but as long as that doesn’t turn into a quagmire, the Steelers won’t go quietly, especially since a Mike Tomlin defense rarely gets overrun. If it’s to be Big Ben’s last hurrah, we suggest he at least goes out with guns blazing as the Steelers clear the “over” at Heinz Field.

While Baltimore, Buffalo, and Cleveland seem to be the chic picks to knock off the Chiefs atop the AFC, we wonder why more people aren’t paying attention to the Tennessee Titans (9)? Who, Dr. Fauci might remind, seem to have gotten Covid issues with some of their key cogs (including shrewd HC Mike Vrabel) out of the way before the season begins. Vrabel is just two years removed from steering the Titans to an unexpected AFC title game berth, and won the AFC South a year ago, so Tennessee has definitely been knocking on the door. The Titans are also looking at a potential three-peat NFL rushing champion in their midst; not since Emmitt Smith, and before that Earl Campbell, and before that Jim Brown, have accomplished what Derrick Henry has the potential to do this fall. Adding Julio Jones to the receiving arsenal as a new big-play target for Ryan Tannehill (whose career revival has continued in Nashville) won’t hurt the offense, either, though new o.c. Todd Downing has some big shoes to fill after Arthur Smith moved to the Falcons as their new head coach. Moreover, if GM Jon Robinson was really able to re-tool the defense in the offseason, and has found the pass rusher he desperately needed in FA OLB Bud Dupree (ex-Steelers), then the Titans have a legit shot at the Chiefs and anyone else in the AFC. It will help getting beyond nine wins to have expected doormats Houston and Jacksonville in the same division and likely worth four wins as well. It’s an “over” for us in Music City.

While we understand some of the excitement surrounding the Jacksonville Jaguars (6.5) now that they have what seems a upper-tier head coach (Urban Meyer) and a future franchise QB (top draft pick Trevor Lawrence) in the fold, let’s not forget that both Meyer and Lawrence have yet to experience an NFL regular-season game as participants. And even if both manage the transition smoothly from the college game, the Jags are being asked to improve six wins from a year ago to clear this 6.5 number. That seems to be asking a lot, especially as there are still plenty of questions marks beyond the aforementioned pair, beginning with a defense that was abysmal a year ago and needs to make upgrades in a hurry. Any ongoing inabilities to stop the run or provide an effective pass rush make reaching seven wins a lot harder. Moreover, Meyer is already minus a weapon he was counting upon, Clemson rookie RB and Lawrence college teammate Travis Etienne, who went down in preseason with a foot injury that will keep him out until 2022. Already, Meyer has also made a few p.r. missteps, suggesting that an extended transition phase is much more likely in Jacksonville, and that the “mustache man” (owner Shad Khan) is going to have to wait a bit for these new investments to pay off. It’s an “under” for us at what they used to call the Gator Bowl.


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