In the first of Mike Carlson's 2021-22 NFL season previews our man runs through all 16 NFC teams as they vie to be Super Bowl LVI champions
"The real key is Brady, playing his 21st season at 44 years of age, but with all his weapons back, plus tight end OJ Howard and Gio Bernard, who may be a more useful third-down runner than either Leonard Fournette or Ronald Jones. As long as Tampa Tom stays fit at 40+, they have a great shot."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2020-21 record - 11 wins, five losses
No Super Bowl winning team had returned all 22 starters the next season, until Tampa did this year. And they should be as good, because, apart from Tom Brady (pictured below) tweaking Bruce Arians' offense in last year's bye week, the addition of Antonio Brown and return from injury of defensive tackle Vita Vea in week 13 made them a better team. Via and Ndamukong Suh inside made it harder for the Chiefs to help out their backup tackles in the Super Bowl, and rookies Joe Tryon and KJ Britt ought to provide great depth behind the edge rushers and the inside linebacker pair of Lavonte David and Devin White. Offensively, rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs played at Pro Bowl level, as does guard Ali Marpet; another rookie, Robert Hainsey could provide depth all along the line. But the real key is Brady, playing his 21st season at 44 years of age, but with all his weapons back, plus tight end OJ Howard and Gio Bernard, who may be a more useful third-down runner than either Leonard Fournette or Ronald Jones. As long as Tampa Tom stays fit at 40+, they have a great shot.
Aaron Rodgers is a mere kid compared to Brady, but his petulant hold-out means this could be his last year in Green Bay. He may think he's not been given enough support, but realistically they've gone 13-3 in each of coach Matt LaFleur's two seasons, then lost the NFC title game (admittedly LaFleur made a bad decision at the end of last year's game with a chance to tie Tampa). So this is Rodgers' best chance: and he's got Davante Adams, one of the league's two best all-round receivers, a fine runner in Aaron Jones and an up and coming tight end in Robert Tonyan. Rodgers (pictured below) puts enough points up to overcome some defensive lapses, but gambling coordinator Mike Pettine is out and Joe Barry, a more conservative type who's usually coached in four-man fronts, not the Packers' three, replaces him. The pass rush comes from the Smith Bros (they aren't really) and Preston needs to return to Zadarius' form, but the real key is Kenny Clark, who needs help up front, and sorting out the cornerbacks, which is why they drafted Eric Stokes as a replacement for Kevin King. If they're less vulnerable to the pass, they could give the Brady Bunch trouble.
It may be presumptuous of me to put the Saints so high on my list - the Betfair odds do not suggest they are major players - and Drew Brees is now retired with either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill set to play QB. But frankly Brees was a shadow of himself last year, and in the past two seasons they went 8-1 with those two (and Teddy Bridgewater in 2019) starting. Winston (pictured below) in 2019 threw for 5,000 yards and 33 TDs for Tampa, but also threw 30 picks and had 12 fumbles. If Sean Payton can build his pocket awareness, and Hill's (who was sacked far more than acceptable) the rest of the Saints' team is solid: Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray running behind one of the league's best O lines, Michael Thomas making precise catches. They could use receiving help, but Payton schemes around that. Defensively, Demario Davis is one of the most underrated players at linebacker, and rookie Pete Werner could join him in the Saints' standard 4-3-5 alignment. Ageless Malcolm Jenkins is a great football player, with Marshon Lattimore at corner and Marcus Williams and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson at safeties alongside him, they can afford to play in that nickle all game long.
Injuries stymied the Niners last year, including to QB Jimmy Garoppolo, and this year they have a QB Controversy as they paid a bundle to move up in the draft for Trey Lance from North Dakota State. They've signed tight end George Kittle (pictured below) to a huge contract extension, brought in Alex Mack from Atlanta, where he played for coach Kyle Shanahan, to play center, and drafted Trey Sermon to make up for losses at running back behind Raheem Mostert. But Mostert and Kittle played only eight games each last year. Defensively, Robert Saleh has gone to coach the NY Jest, but Nick Bosa should be back after being injured in week two last year; Javon Kinlaw had a fine rookie season, Fred Warner is one of the best backers in the league. If Jason Verrett can match his almost healthy 2020 season, the D could be good, and regardless of who plays QB, they should score. But you just can't tell how much.
The Seahawks are the Ravens of the NFC: always tough, dependent on their QB to make big plays when all else fails. Russell Wilson (below) is a playmaker, and despite the money he gets, probably still undervalued. He can throw to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, but he's best when plays break down and Seattle has been less effective in structured offense. They want to play run first, and a healthy Chris Carson is good, but they need more variety. Defensively, Pete Carroll keeps trying to re-create the Legion Of Boom, but after finally settling a deal with safety Jamal Adams, acquired in trade last year, it's looking like a different kind of secondary, with smaller players like DJ Reid and Quandre Diggs. Bobby Wagner remains Fred Warner's best competition for the ideal middle linebacker award, and last year's trade for Carlos Dunlap helped as front, as this year's signings of Kerry Hyder and Al Woods ought to alongside everybody's favourite Poona, Poona Ford.
Last year Mike Zimmer thought he could rebuild his defense on the fly. That didn't work and Kirk Cousins wasn't good enough to carry the team offensively, even though rookie Justin Jefferson had an amazing season replacing Stefon Diggs. Like the Rams, they really need a third receiver who defenses will have to worry about; interestingly though, they used two of their first three draft picks on strengthening their O line, and tackle Christian Darrisaw and center/guard Wyatt Davis ought to do that eventually. Dalvin Cook, when healthy, and Alexander Mattison, are one of the league's best one-two punches at running back, and Irv Smith might get some help at tight end from Tyler Conklin.
But Zimmer is a defensive coach, and he's learned about his rebuilding: he brought back Stephen Weatherly, Sheldon Richardon and MacKenzie Alexander, who were all cap casualties earlier, and signed free agents Dalvin Tomlinson, Brashaud Breeland and Patrick Peterson. Plus they get last year's big (in every sense) free agent Michael Pierce (pictured below) back after he opted out of the 2020 season. You could argue the Vikes are pretenders, as they could go only as far as Captain Kirk takes them, but with the much better D they can field, I think they might surprise.
The Rams keep mortgaging their future for the present, but in NFL terms that usually means mortgaging the present too: they've bled a lot of talent, especially from their defense, and they haven't had a first round draft pick since Obama was president. Matt Stafford came in to provide a drop-back pass game for Sean McVay, but they still need someone (Van Jefferson?) to become a third receiver with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. And with top runner Cam Akers injured in pre-season, they had to trade for Sony Michel, the guy who got the winning TD against them in the Super Bowl loss to the Pats. Wade Phillips' D held Brady's Pats to 13 points in that loss, but he left, his replacement Bradon Staley has now gone to Detroit, and veteran Raheem Morris will have less of that steadily draining talent, though he still has the league's best defensive player in Aaron Donald. They also have Jalen Ramsey, but the keys might be whether Taylor Rapp can set up as a starting safety and whether Justin Hollins, a favourite of mine signed off the waiver wire last year, can step up at weak-side linebacker. The Rams could be legit, but they could also struggle with depth issues
They have the talent to easily take their division, but there is something about Jerry Jones' team that fails to inspire confidence. QB Dak Prescott (below) is good, but his huge deal was more a question of who can you get who's better, and his best year remains his first when fellow rookie Zeke Elliott had his best season too. They were running behind the league's best line; it isn't that any longer, though it can be strong, though it's weakest perceived link, Connor Williams, was the only one to play all 16 games. Jerry likes flashy offense, and has assembled a flash trio of receivers in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, but Jerry's prime requirement in a coach is to not take the spotlight away from Jerry Jones, so one might think putting Mike McCarthy in charge of those three amigos is like putting your grandfather behind the wheel of a Maserati. Defensively, Dan Quinn is the new coordinator and they shook up the D, drafting Micah Parsons to start at LB, Kelvin Joseph to likely start at corner and bringing Quinn-fave Keanu Neal in from Atlanta; he may start at backer as well, while speedy draftee Jabril Cox learns. There are a few holes there, especially if flashy ends Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence don't deliver, but Jerry doesn't see beyond the flash, thought they have brought in Vikings' castoff Everson Griffen to play end.
The biggest problem for the Cards is elevating themselves to the level of the other three teams in their division, none of whom is dominant. They brought in 33-year-old AJ Green (pictured below) to replace the retired Larry Fitzgerald, and if Green stays healthy he could be an upgrade, but they need James Connor to help the run game and they need QB Kyler Murray to grow into taking the stuff defenses give him rather than depending on big plays in broken situations. Kliff Kingsbury's offense can't fool teams every week, but Vance Joseph's D needs to be able to stop some explosive NFC West teams. Adding 32 year old JJ Watt looks great, and may take pressure off Chandler jones, but more important might be rookie linebacker Zaven Collins joining last year's rookie Isaiah Simmons, and wther the addition of Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford can steady a secondary that features hard-hitting safety Budda Baker. They went 8-8 last year: with a 17 game season they can't go .500 this year.
Or Washington Team Football (WTF) as I like to call them, is just the kind of team Ron Rivera played for and coached as defensive coordinator in Chicago and as head coach in Carolina: exceptionally strong defensively and perhaps challenged on offense. Their defensive front seven, filled with top draft picks, can stop the run and rush the passer: last year's rookie star Chase Young is poised for a breakout season. But can the offense produce enough points (and more importantly, avoid turnovers) to capitalise on that? The man in command is 38 year old gun-slinging journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick (below), in his 17th season from Ivy League Harvard: at his best he works Fitzmagic, at his worst he spirals out of control. Late-signing Charles "Jay" Leno and rookie Sam Cosmi will man the tackles, and though Fitz will scramble, guys his age need protection. There is a division title available here, Fitz has some weapons (including Curtis Samuel, who rejoins Rivera from Carolina) and if Dallas falter...
I take the Panthers seriously because I think they are well coached, and they went 5-11 last year without Christian McCaffrey (pictured) for most of the year. But I wonder if Joe Brady is a good enough offensive coordinator to transform QB Sam Darnold from the guy he was at the Jets: potentially explosive but a bad decision machine. They still need O line help, but the D under Phil Snow is solid enough to trade Denzel Perryman away this week. Hybrid safety/linebacker Jeremy Chinn is one of the league's upcoming stars, if anyone notices. I'd put them in the dark horse category, but not in a division with Tampa and New Orleans.
New GM, new coaches and the smell of promise in the air. Veteran Matt Ryan returns at QB, Dean Pees ought to be able to make an acceptable defense right away, but offensively they still need to build around Ryan and no matter how talented top draft pick Kyle Pitts is, a tight end is not quite enough. The same caveat applies to the Falcons as the Panthers: Tampa and New Orleans will make it hard to even reach the playoffs. Their adjustment to moving away from Dan Quinn's D may be harder than Dallas' moving into it, but Pees came out of retirement for the challenge, alongside new head coach Arthur Smith, with whom he coached in Tennessee where Smith was offensive coordinator. Pees likes 3-4 defense, which means non-pass rush ends like Marlon Davidson and Tyeler Davison might be more effective alongside Grady Jarrett, while holdover inside backers Deoin Jones and Foye Oluokon could fit like David and White in Tampa. I like their round two pick Richie Grant at safety. You might expect Smith's offense to be very run and tight end centric, which is why they drafted Pitts, and signed Mike Davis from Carolina to be the every down back. Rookies Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman could bolster the O line; if Willie Beavers wins the right tackle job you can bet they will run the ball plenty. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley give them two top pass catchers; if the line jells for this offense the Falcons could surprise.
Da Bears are Da Midwest's version of WTF, except where Washington's defense really is good, the Bears' is not what it was when Vic Fangio was still the coordinator, even if Kahlil Mack, Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson and Akiem Hicks return. They've shed cornerbacks, which is a worry. Offensively, Mitch Trubisky is gone but head coach Adam Gase remains and all you need to know is they signed Andy Dalton (pictured below) while they were drafting Justin Fields, and Nick Foles is still around making a fortune and one for once apparently holding the team hostage if they want to trade him. It seems like chaos to me.
Ah yes, remember Nick Foles and the Philly Special? New coach Nick Sirianni comes in from Indy and Jalen Hurts, the round two pick last season, is the new QB, although they just brought in The Stache, Gardner Minshew, from Jacksonville as his backup. There will be a lot of sandlot style passing in Philly this year. Their aging O line still needs some upgrade (or good health): though center Jason Kelce (below), at 33, remains one of the best and Aussie rugby league cast off Jordan Mailata (6-8 350-ish pounds) has spent four years learning the game from scratch and is ready to be an all-star. They drafted receiver DeVonta Smith in round one, which is often a kiss of death in Philly, but he can make plays. Defensively, they can still rush the passer, but the back seven is full of question marks.
The Matt Patricia era (or should that be error?) is finally over: another Bill Belichick disciple who found trying to Be Like Bill was difficult if you didn't have the leadership along with the tactical nous. Detroit hired Dan Campbell, who will provide the rock-jawed Fearless Leader approach to the team, which doesn't quite fit with their trading QB Matt Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff (pictured below) and a bevy of draft picks. They could turn into a run-first play action offense that makes Goff look great, that will be up to run-first coordinator Anthony Lynn and a big O line that needs top draft pick Penai Sewell to live up to his draft position and expensive free agent Big V, Hala Vitai to live up to last year's deal. Last year their defense was defined by slowness, they added speedy linebacker Alex Anzalone from Campbell's old team, New Orleans, and another, slower, Ram, Michael Brockers, to eat space up front.
Head Coach Joe Judge (below) was Bill Belichick's special teams coach; he's in the Campbell mode as a hard case leader: to the point his starting QB Daniel Jones was buried at the bottom of a huge brawl between his offense and defense during training camp. Jones is the key for the team, but they haven't really done enough to upgrade the O line, instead drafting explosive receiver Kadarius Toney to be a shiny hood ornament as Jones lies on his back after being hit. Defensively they are another team who look very strong up front, but less so in the back seven, which could be a problem if the offense doesn't produce points, or worse, produces a lot of turnovers, as Jones is prone to fumble as well as prone to being prone.