As the NFL regular season begins, intriguing questions and storylines abound
College football may be the sport closest to my heart, but that doesn’t mean I’m never excited for the start of the NFL season either. As I’m writing the column this week, the NFL returns tonight with Dallas and Tampa Bay on Thursday Night Football, followed by a full slate of games Sunday and the Baltimore-Las Vegas matchup Monday night to close the first week of action.
There are some interesting storylines surrounding both the Buccaneers and Cowboys ahead of their Thursday night clash, though I don’t really expect either to be answered in the first game.
Questions surrounding the return of Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott after his season-ending injury last will are intriguing and I am curious to see how he plays.
Perhaps more important than Prescott’s play is whether his ankle can hold up all season after undergoing surgery. If he can play well and stay healthy, Dallas should factor in the NFC East race – but those questions will require more than one game to properly assess.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills are in different places as organizations ahead of their opening-week matchup. The clock is ticking down on Ben Roethlisberger’s career, and 2021 feels like a last hurrah of sorts for the old guard in Pittsburgh before the franchise transitions to life after Big Ben within the next couple of years.
Buffalo, meanwhile, will look to stake its claim as a force to be reckoned with in the AFC behind gunslinger Josh Allen, who will look to prove that last year’s success wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
Buffalo is the early favorite in the AFC East, but New England enters a new era under rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Bill Belichick still patrols the sidelines in Foxborough, so don’t count the Patriots out if Jones plays well.
In Miami, some are already considering 2021 to be a make-or-break year for second-year signal caller Tua Tagovailoa, who hopes to take the next step in his development and lead the Dolphins to the playoffs after missing out despite winning 10 games last year.
The AFC North will be interesting to watch this fall, as the Steelers are trying to make the most of Roethlisberger’s remaining time under center while the Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson aim to return to the postseason after disappointing playoff exits in each of the past three years.
The Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, must navigate life with preseason expectations after a surprise postseason appearance last year. Is Cleveland ready to take the next step to become a perennial factor in the division race after years of being an afterthought, or was the 2020 success just a fluke?
In the AFC South, Jacksonville will probably struggle in year one of the Trevor Lawrence/Urban Meyer era and the Houston Texans are a mess from top to bottom, but Tennessee will seek the opportunity to factor into the conference hunt after adding Julio Jones in the offseason.
Indianapolis, meanwhile, will try to flip the script on the narrative surrounding Carson Wentz after a disappointing end to his time in Philadelphia. Will a change of scenery help Wentz return to his old self circa 2017, or is he washed?
Kansas City remains the heavy favorite in the AFC West and the conference as a whole, but the Los Angeles Chargers are intriguing. The franchise has come up short seemingly every time it’s faced preseason expectations, and the Chargers are praying Justin Herbert avoids a sophomore slump.
The Washington Football Team won the NFC East with a losing record last year, but they’re a team I think will surprise this fall. The defense – led by reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young – is stout, and I think the offense will be better than a year ago with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center.
Fitzpatrick is definitively not the long-time answer, but his willingness to throw the ball downfield should pay dividends this season for a receiving corps headlined by Terry McLaurin. Plus, Antonio Gibson returns in the backfield after emerging as a pleasant surprise during his rookie season.
The division is wide open, and I honestly would not be surprised if Washington won 10-12 games. Dallas could factor into the division race if Prescott stays healthy and plays well, but the Cowboys face questions defensively and it appears the game has passed head coach Mike McCarthy by. Philadelphia is rebuilding, and 2021 sure seems like quarterback Daniel Jones’ last shot to prove he can be the answer under center for the New York Giants.
In the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings will look to rebound defensively after a disappointing 2020 while hoping Kirk Cousins can finally push the offense into another gear. However, the division still likely runs through Green Bay. The Packers should contend in the NFC, but is this their last shot with Aaron Rodgers?
The future Hall-of-Famer’s discontent this offseason never materialized into anything substantial for this fall, but I doubt his concerns have been fully resolved. Plus, star wideout Davante Adams could also be gone after this season. With long-term uncertainty still surrounding key pieces on offense, 2021 is a pivotal year in Green Bay.
Detroit, meanwhile, figures to experience growing pains as it enters a rebuild with a new head coach in Dan Campbell and a new face under center in Jared Goff after shipping longtime starter in Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles. In Chicago, the question becomes how long it takes rookie quarterback Justin Fields to supplant Andy Dalton as the starter.
Defending champion Tampa Bay likely runs the NFC South and is the first Super Bowl winner to return all 22 starters, but key questions linger for the other three teams. The Atlanta Falcons have delayed a full-on rebuild thus far, but with defensive questions and an aging quarterback, it could be Matt Ryan’s last ride in Atlanta.
The Falcons open with Philadelphia, where no one really knows if Jalen Hurts has what it takes to become a franchise quarterback. The matchup between Hurts and the Atlanta defense should be telling – especially if he struggles.
It’s the end of an era in New Orleans, as Drew Brees retired and Jameis Winston hopes to keep momentum going. Outside of preseason surprise wideout Marquez Callaway, the Saints’ receiving corps is littered with uncertainty while Michael Thomas misses the start of the season with injury.
Admittedly, my bias as a Panthers fan means I’m most interested in the questions surrounding Carolina in Matt Rhule’s second season as head coach. Christian McCaffrey returns after missing much of last season with injury and a young defense led by Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn could be sneaky good, but the Panthers will go as far as new quarterback Sam Darnold can take them.
Carolina shipped three draft picks to the New York Jets before the draft for Darnold, the third overall pick in 2018. The USC product flamed out in New York, and the thinking is that giving Darnold upgraded weapons – wideouts Robby Anderson and DJ Moore both eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last year, plus McCaffrey remains a lethal receiving threat out of the backfield – will allow the 24-year-old to blossom into a franchise quarterback in Charlotte.
Darnold must cut down on turnovers, a mission that begins in the opener against his old team as the Jets and second overall pick Zach Wilson come to town.
The NFC West is absolutely loaded, as all four teams can reasonably claim they have a shot at the playoffs. The Rams and coach Sean McVay hope the Stafford acquisition elevates the offense to a level that supplements a stellar defense anchored by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks should not be counted out as long as Russell Wilson remains under center, and the San Francisco 49ers reached the Super Bowl in 2019 before a slew of injuries contributed to a disappointing 2020 campaign. Coach Kyle Shanahan appears adamant in playing both Jimmy Garoppolo and first-round pick Trey Lance at quarterback – at least early on – so watching how that all plays out will be fascinating.
The time for all the offseason discussions and preseason predictions is over. The NFL – and its new 17-game regular season – is officially back. I’m going to settle down and enjoy the ride.
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