It’s almost like the NFL is pursuing college football heading into the 2021 season. Yes, the buccaneers are the defending champions and the Packers have legitimate title aspirations.
The rest of the NFC, it looks more like Conference USA compared to the AFC, the professional version of the SEC. It’s so crooked.
Remember the will of the ChiefsbillsRaven, BrownsSteelers, Titans, ColtsDolphins, Patriots and chargers. They all have their supporters as Super Bowl contenders, with Kansas City, Buffalo, Baltimore and Cleveland filling the field.
On the other hand, it’s hard to take anyone seriously in the NFC East or North (apart from Green Bay). While the NFC West is strong and will be fought hard, all four members — Rams, Seahawks, 49ers, Cardinals — have big questions for the Bucs, bringing back virtually everyone — a rare feat for a Super Bowl winner, even one with Tom Brady at quarterback – and Packers have pretty much answered already.
“You want the road to the Super Bowl, the road to where we want to get, to be as hard as possible,” said Titans Safety Kevin Byard. “I think that’s something we can be proud of, and it also keeps us on our toes to let us know, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of competition for the AFC Championship or just the Super Bowl. We need to get out here every day and work as hard as we can and not take a single day for granted. Because at the end of the day… it’s a busy race, it’s like a horse race… You have to keep going.
“It’s not one of those deals where you can get ahead early and think you can slack off. No, every day we have to do the work and not necessarily really get caught up in who is 5-0 early in the year, just keep our heads down and we’ll see where we are at the end of the year.”
Adds Browns safety John Johnson III, who jumped conferences this season and signed with Cleveland as a free agent after four years with the Rams:
“You’ve got some big contenders — even just in this division. And then you look at Buffalo and Kansas City and you never know who else might come alive in that division with Kansas City. Denver can come alive, so I think it’s pretty competitive, and it’s a different game.”
A different game in every way, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be a competitive factor as the NFL enters a regular 17-game season for the first time.
Vaccinated players have a distinct freedom advantage in how they can live their lives – at least for now – compared to unvaccinated players. More than 93% of players have received the vaccine, but it doesn’t take much to cause an outbreak, as the Titans and Cowboys saw during the preseason.
“People’s livelihoods are at stake in terms of jobs,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said late last month; Buffalo has had one of the lowest vaccination rates of the 32 teams. “Being able to count on people is important, so if you go through a week – if this were a real week – and the players we’ve had, it makes it harder to win games that way.”
Injuries will of course also be an important factor; they always are. One of the most damaging last season was the serious ankle injury for Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott. He was hampered by shoulder problems this summer, so Thursday night’s spotlight will be firmly on him as the Cowboys kick off the schedule in Tampa Bay.
Oh, that 44-year-old guy named Brady behind the center of the Buccaneers might get some attention too.
Seven head coaches make their debut, with Urban Meyer in Jacksonville the headliner tracking his success — and wanderlust — in the college game. Four of the worst teams in the league have new men at the helm: Nick Sirianni with the Eagles, Robert Saleh with the Jets, Dan Campbell with the Lions and the Texans David Culley, the only African American to get one of seven openings. Arthur Smith takes over the Falcons, Brandon Staley the Chargers.
Meyer’s excitement about the upcoming opener is palpable.
“This is right near the top because I don’t recall ever coming out of the parachute where the talent is equated across the board and you have a young quarterback,” he says. “So yes. a lot is happening, but I like where we are.”
The league plans to return to London for matches for a year after moving it to its US home stadiums. Those games have Jets vs. Falcons and Dolphins vs. Jaguars in October.
Another very notable — and noteworthy — schedule item: The Super Bowl in Los Angeles will be played later than ever, February 13. That’s right in the middle of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
By then, the AFC will have sorted out its impressive collection of contenders. Don’t be surprised if the conference winner finds Brady and the Bucs or Aaron Rodgers and the Packers as their opponent.
AP Pro Football writers Teresa M. Walker and Mark Long, and sports writers John Wawrow and Tom Withers contributed.
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