The NFL preseason is done and now fans of all 32 teams can fully face forward to Week 1. The 2021 regular season is sure to bring more domination from familiar teams, but there also will be plenty of surprises that come with the league’s annual parity.
Forget some of the vibes from the early offseason and training camp. When the games count in the standings toward determining the NFL’s hierarchy, how a team looks on paper means nothing vs. the developing product on the field over now 18 meaningful weeks.
Based on Sporting News’ upcoming record predictions for 2021, here’s how we see all the teams stacking up against each other to start it all for real:
NFL Week 1 power rankings
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (previous rank: 1)
Tom Brady is back and the offense has been reloaded. The mostly young defense that fueled victory in Super Bowl 55 is intact. The team continues to have great blend of experience and youth with exceptional all-around coaching. The Bucs remain the team to beat in a strong quest to repeat.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (2)
With a healthy Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs always will have a floor that is close to the ceiling of the league. They have made some offensive changes with the line and a few skill players to give Mahomes a different kind of support. The defense still has enough complementary playmakers to make Kansas City a heavy favorite for three consecutive AFC crowns.
3. Buffalo Bills (4)
The Bills have their own elite QB play with megamillion man Josh Allen and they will fully trust in him and his big arm again to lead a pass-heavy attack. They also hope to run better elsewhere to be less reliant on his legs and shored up a few more spots defensively. Consider them the biggest co-threat to dethrone the Chiefs.
4. Cleveland Browns (3)
The Browns plan to open up their offense more with Baker Mayfield and they have some promising reinforcements behind Myles Garrett on defense. Kevin Stefanski has been established as a top-flight coach in Year 2 and the organization is organized for more success for a change. Look for the Browns to jump from strong wild card to first-time AFC North champions.
5. Green Bay Packers (5)
The Packers don’t need to worry about Aaron Rodgers going anywhere in the short term, which means they will continue to chug along offensively for Matt LaFleur. They should be getting more out of their defense, which might be what keeps them from getting to the Super Bowl over the Bucs and other teams again.
6. San Francisco 49ers (7)
The 49ers’ offense will be one of the league’s most balanced and explosive whether it’s Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance starting at QB, with the latter adding more dynamic elements in time. The defense was dismantled by injuries last season and did lose Robert Saleh, but there’s enough talent led by Nick Bosa and Fred Warner for a big rebound.
7. Baltimore Ravens (6)
The Ravens are flying under the radar behind the Chiefs, Bills and Browns but they still have a rising Lamar Jackson to lead an efficient offense and keep adjusting well to find the right performers for their defensive foundation. John Harbaugh’s team will be right there as an AFC title challenger with a high level of personnel and coaching.
8. Los Angeles Rams (9)
The Rams are getting a little too much hype with Matthew Stafford, but there’s no denying he’s a big upgrade for what Sean McVay wants to do offensively. They will spread the ball around well with more big plays in the passing game. Losing Cam Akers for the running game hurts, as does the departure of Brandon Staley and a few key players from the defense. That drops L.A. to a mighty wild card behind San Francisco.
9. Los Angeles Chargers (8)
Don’t sleep on the other team in L.A., now coached by Staley. He will have a big influence in getting the defense to perform up to its talent level with Joey Bosa as the centerpiece. The other side is just as promising with Justin Herbert in Year 2 with fine weapons and an offense that might be better suited to him.
10. Seattle Seahawks (11)
Russell Wilson gets the L.A. influence in the offense with McVay protege Shane Waldron. The Seahawks will still run the ball well but will boost Wilson with a more diversified passing game. The defense is still finding its way back to its best version under Pete Carroll, but it’s solid enough to keep up the winning-season run with Wilson.
11. Arizona Cardinals (16)
The Cardinals will make up for just missing the NFC playoffs last season and make it four entries from the division in the seven-team field. Kliff Kingsbury delivers in a critical season with a lot of experience serving well on the defense while also getting more explosive and hard to defend around Kyler Murray.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers (14)
The Steelers have a strong baseline of defense, fronted by T.J. Watt. They don’t need too much offensively to keep up their playoff hopes, and pivoting away from Ben Roethlisberger and heavy passing and turning to rookie Najee Harris and steady running is wise as they attempt to contain Big Ben’s aging weaknesses in Matt Canada’s offense.
13. Tennessee Titans (13)
The Titans won’t mess with their winning formula under Mike Vrabel. They remain a dangerous offense playing off Derrick Henry with Ryan Tannehill playing at a high level, with Julio Jones replacing Corey Davis. Their defense still has considerable holes and will keep them from being on the same plane as other AFC playoff teams.
14. Dallas Cowboys (10)
For now, there should be belief the Cowboys’ high-scoring offense will be fine with a healthy Dak Prescott. The defense added Dan Quinn and Micah Parsons, but that’s still a considerable weakness. This team will be inconsistent as usual but with Prescott giving it a big QB advantage in the NFC East, it should take an improved but still rather weak division.
15. Washington Football Team (17)
Washington won’t be sub-.500 again as it threatens the Cowboys with its own explosive offense as QB Ryan Fitzpatrick facilitates its many playmakers. There’s already a strong defensive backbone for Ron Rivera’s team with Chase Young and others.
16. Cincinnati Bengals (24)
The Bengals are a polarizing young team in terms of how good outsiders think they can be in Year 2 of Joe Burrow, considering he’s coming off a major knee injury. Here’s believing in Burrow’s talent, toughness and leadership to push a high-volume passing offense into hanging well with the stronger members of the AFC North. The defense also got some needed upgrades for complementary support.
17. Indianapolis Colts (12)
The Colts are good candidates for regression to the mean with Frank Reich. Carson Wentz will need to be whispered well in a hurry and missing all the preseason time with a foot injury doesn’t inspire. Indianapolis will still lean much on the running with Jonathan Taylor and a well-coached defense to win games, but it simply doesn’t have the same overall offensive pop as the true AFC contenders above.
18. New England Patriots (19)
The Patriots’ quarterback decision of Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones has little bearing on how they will try to manufacture wins in 2021. They are still strong defensively and will grind out games with a deep versatile, backfield, while also using a lot of double-tight end sets. That will likely get the Patriots back to the middle of the pack and just short of a wild-card berth.
19. New Orleans Saints (20)
The Saints will also try to operate with the running game-defense model in the first season in more than 15 years without Drew Brees. They will lean a lot on the line and Alvin Kamara and hope their defense isn’t headed to quick decline around Cameron Jordan. Sean Payton will do a good coaching job in the transition, but catching the Buccaneers and other NFC playoff teams will be difficult with Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill.
20. Miami Dolphins (15)
The Dolphins have made enough offensive changes to consider this a second, true rookie season for Tua Tagovailoa. They want more big pass plays, but their strength is still a running game with multiple options. Much of the winning burden will continue to fall on Xavien Howard and the rest of the defensive playmakers.
21. Minnesota Vikings (18)
The Vikings are confident they will go back a more effective Mike Zimmer-style defense in 2021, but there are still some notable holes. The run-heavy offense is status quo with Dalvin Cook setting up Kirk Cousins for more efficient passing to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. They are likely to underachieve based on schedule and losing games they shouldn’t.
22. Chicago Bears (21)
The Bears are starting with Andy Dalton at QB, but everyone expects a transition to rookie first-rounder Justin Fields sooner rather than later. As a returning playoff team with a decent running game and still solid defense, Chicago has an OK floor, but the big change may lead to a few lumps before re-emerging as a contender in 2022.
23. New York Giants (22)
The Giants are a difficult team to read going into 2021 because so much rests on the third-year boom or bust of Daniel Jones. They have a wide range of outcomes, but there is a lot more offensive optimism with Saquon Barkley available to help open up a new-look passing game. An underrated defense may be key to pleasant surprise vs. more disappointment.
24. Philadelphia Eagles (23)
The Eagles are flipping the page from their short-lived Super Bowl makeup with Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz to a quick reboot with Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts. The offense will be a work in progress as all the key personnel gets settled in a new scheme, while the defense is closer to rebuild than top form.
25. Carolina Panthers (28)
The Panthers will be glad to have Christian McCaffrey back as the centerpiece of their offense again, especially with bigger quarterback questions than last season because of Sam Darnold. Carolina has some nice pieces on every level of the defense, but they will be stuck in third place because of the Bucs’ dominance and Saints’ more seasoned coaching.
26. New York Jets (29)
The Jets are on the right track for a turnaround in 2022 by plucking the 49ers’ coaching combination of Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur, the right braintrust for a defensive rebuild and offensive reboot with No. 2 overall pick QB Zach Wilson. In the short term, the running and passing games will look much more respectable while they give up a little too much on the other side of the ball.
27. Atlanta Falcons (25)
The Falcons will be introducing yet another offense for Matt Ryan, bur Arthur Smith will bring so much needed focus back on the running game with Mike Davis. Ryan also has a pair of elite reasons for optimism in Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts, even minus Julio Jones. That said, key parts of the defense will remain the Dirty Birds’ bugaboo.
28. Denver Broncos (27)
The Broncos decided to roll with Drew Lock vs. Teddy Bridgewater as cause for less confidence in their quarterback situation. They want to tap into the running game-defense formula, too, with rookie Javonte Williams set to have a big role to help complement Von Miller & Co for Vic Fangio. But despite Denver’s intriguing receiving crops, it doesn’t have enough offensive juice to maximize some of its top talent.
29. Las Vegas Raiders (26)
The Raiders look like a bigger mess defensively and although there’s some promise on paper, it’s still a mismatch of a Derek Carr-led offense with multiple identities. Unfortunately, they are more fold than flush for the first season with fans in Vegas.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (30)
The Jaguars have sky-high enthusiasm with Trevor Lawrence, but that seems to be curbed with doubts about Urban Meyer’s initial pro coaching acumen. Lawrence will get only limited help offensively and there’s not much to feel comfortable about defensively yet.
31. Detroit Lions (31)
The Lions are looking ahead to future seasons with some of their recent moves and are just trying to save some face with Jared Goff as more of a bridge QB than long-term solution. Dan Campbell, Anthony Lynn and Aaron Glenn have their work cut out for them with limited star power available.
32. Houston Texans (32)
The Texans aren’t much of a team without Deshaun Watson carrying them, as they have plenty of offensive concerns elsewhere. The post-J.J. Watt defense also will have trouble stopping much. This is a brutal looking roster for Nick Caserio and David Culley.