The vast majority of NFL previews attempt to predict what is most likely to happen in the upcoming season. I suspect you’ve read about 40 or 50 of them by now. Every year, just before the season begins, I like to drop a slightly different look at what’s to come. Today, I’m going to give you an explanation of how each and every team in the NFL is capable of winning Super Bowl LVI.
Obviously, these teams don’t have an equal chance of celebrating in Los Angeles next February. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), the four top Super Bowl contenders on paper have nearly a 50% chance of winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Bucs had a 3.8% shot of winning the title last season, when I wrote this:
“The Bucs are closer to a Super Bowl than you might think, in part because their defense is probably better than you pictured it after last season. Tampa Bay ranked 29th in scoring defense, but that was mostly a product of Jameis Winston and the offense. After you strip out his seven pick-sixes and account for the fact that Todd Bowles’ defense faced a league-high 189 drives and inherited the league’s worst average starting field position, Tampa Bay’s sixth-place finish in defensive DVOA makes more sense. Those issues are unlikely to recur with turnover-averse Tom Brady as the Bucs’ new quarterback.”
Suggesting that Brady could win a Super Bowl doesn’t exactly qualify as insightful analysis, but the Bucs were a lot closer on the defensive side of the ball than it might have seemed by traditional measures of performance. For each of these 32 teams, I’ll try to use the evidence we have about their performance and comparable situations from history to try to tease out a scenario in which they could be capable of winning an NFL championship. I’ll start with the teams FPI believes have the lowest chances to win the title and count down to the No. 1 team:
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: Less than 0.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 3.6%
Would the Texans be the most unlikely Super Bowl winners ever? I actually don’t think so. The 2021 Texans are coming off a 4-12 season and don’t appear likely to have quarterback Deshaun Watson — who’s facing 22 active lawsuits with allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior — for the season. The 1999 Rams were coming off of a 4-12 season and lost starting quarterback Trent Green to a season-ending knee injury in training camp. Houston is turning things over to a quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who has a track record of competence in the past, while the Rams were forced to insert 28-year-old backup Kurt Warner, who had 11 career regular-season pass attempts.
Well, you know what happened next for Warner and those Rams. I don’t think Taylor is about to win league MVP, but the Texans have a better roster than people might give them credit for after general manager Nick Caserio spent the offseason signing literally dozens of veterans to one- and two-year deals. Thirty-one of the 53 players who made the Houston roster out of camp were not on the roster a year ago, and many of those players are veterans with meaningful NFL experience.
The Texans don’t realistically have the upside to compete for a Super Bowl — and I have no idea what their long-term vision looks like — but they have a plausible path to looking competent. If they stumble onto a Hall of Fame quarterback along the way, they’ve got a shot.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: Less than 0.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 8.8%
New Jets coach Robert Saleh witnessed a team make it to the Super Bowl faster than most expected when the 49ers jumped from 4-12 to 13-3 in 2019 and came within a couple of stops of beating the Chiefs. For all the talk about Kyle Shanahan’s brilliant offense, it was Saleh’s second-ranked defense (by DVOA) that pushed the 49ers further toward a championship that season. It takes only one look at the roster to see that Saleh doesn’t have the same type of players in New York that he once had in San Francisco, but keep in mind that he has dealt with one of the league’s most injured defensive rosters each of the past two years and still delivered top-10 units.
This time, though, Saleh will probably need the offense to lead the way. Matt LaFleur turned the Packers around quickly, and now his brother Mike — the Jets’ new offensive coordinator — will try to do the same here. Gang Green added a variety of receivers for first-year quarterback Zach Wilson, and while the bar for impressing is low after the struggles of Sam Darnold under Adam Gase, it would take Wilson having one of the great rookie seasons in league history to propel this team into a deep playoff run.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: Less than 0.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 7.8%
It’s difficult for a pass defense to be as bad as the Lions were over the past two seasons. Under defensive whiz Matt Patricia, they allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a passer rating of 105.7, which means that the average passer facing them played about as well as a typical Russell Wilson start over that same time frame. New defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn did an excellent job of bringing through young secondary talent in his time with the Saints, and there’s a chance that he gets much more out of a team with players such as Trey Flowers, Michael Brockers and 2020 No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah.
If the defense makes an unexpected rise up the charts, Detroit could actually be a tough out. It should have one of the league’s best offensive lines protecting Jared Goff, who was an effective passer at times when given time to throw in Los Angeles. A competent Lions team would probably struggle to win the NFC North, but the rest of the teams in their division are one quarterback decision or news conference misstep away from potential turmoil. It’s probably not going to happen, but at the very least, I completed a promise to myself that I would make it through this entire blurb without mentioning kneecaps.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 14.6%
There’s a leap between the bottom three and this next tier, as it’s much easier to fashion a path to a deep playoff run for the Bengals. You can go back to Carson Palmer’s second season as the Cincinnati starter in 2005 to think about how quickly things can turn for a young quarterback, with the difference for these Bengals hopefully being that 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow has already been through his serious knee injury. If Burrow is back and close to the guy we saw at LSU in 2019, few quarterbacks in the league are going to have a more promising trio of wideouts than Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and rookie top-five pick Ja’Marr Chase.
I’m less optimistic about the defense, although 2020 free-agent additions Trae Waynes and D.J. Reader should make more of an impact after playing a combined five games for the Bengals last season. The path to a division title would be murky and probably require some disappointing performances from the other quarterbacks in the AFC North, but Cincinnati has significant upside in a way that the teams ranked below it do not.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 14.8%
I’m optimistic about the 2021 Jaguars, but a trip from 1-15 to the Super Bowl would be the single biggest leap in the modern history of the NFL. No rookie quarterback has ever made it to the Super Bowl as his team’s season-long starter, although Kurt Warner in 1999 was pretty close given his limited track record. Then again, there aren’t many true freshmen quarterbacks who lead their team to a national championship, and Trevor Lawrence did just that at Clemson in the 2018 season. It’s hard to think of a quarterback who comes into the NFL with a more impressive résumé than the No. 1 overall pick, and that sort of ability can transform a franchise.
Matthew Berry targets which rookie QB to draft among Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance and Justin Fields.
Of course, Jags fans don’t have to think far into the past to remember a sudden turnaround. The 2016 Jaguars went 3-13 before going 10-6 the following season. They won the AFC South, beat the Bills and Steelers in the playoffs and came within a blown call of going up 17 points on the Patriots in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game. They did that with a great defense propping up Blake Bortles at quarterback. The formula won’t be the same, but the Jags could exceed expectations again in 2021.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.2%
Chance to make the playoffs: 19.2%
The last time Philly’s starting quarterback entered his second season in the league, the Eagles won the Super Bowl and didn’t even need Carson Wentz to finish the job. I don’t think the Eagles have that sort of upside this season with Jalen Hurts as the starter, but those Eagles were one of the most likely teams in the league to improve before making it back on that same list again last month.
An important thing to take away from that stunning 2017 season is how important it is to get into the playoffs with a plum spot. The Eagles were 11-2 and already in prime position to finish as the top seed when Wentz injured his knee, and while fill-in quarterback Nick Foles wasn’t very good to end the season, they finished as the top seed in the NFC, netting a first-round bye and two home playoff games.
The Eagles aren’t a great team on paper this season, but what if the NFC East is horrible again and they sweep the division while going 6-5 outside of it against a last-place schedule? That might be enough for another first-round bye, and if Foles can win a Super Bowl, anything could happen.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.2%
Chance to make the playoffs: 17.0%
Have the Raiders finally fixed their defense? Jon Gruden’s offenses have been playoff-caliber over the last couple of years, but the much-maligned Vegas defense hasn’t been able to hold up its end of the bargain. Things might finally be different this offseason after adding coordinator Gus Bradley and players such as Yannick Ngakoue and Casey Hayward. Frankly, given that the Raiders have ranked 30th, 31st, 31st and 28th over the past four years in defensive DVOA, it really wouldn’t take much to mark stunning growth.
The Raiders have a huge landmine standing in their way atop the AFC West in Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, but their chances of surprising everyone and making the Super Bowl are also probably strongly correlated with a disappointing Chiefs season. There’s a chance that the Raiders could suddenly go 13-4 and battle a 12-5 Chiefs team atop the division, but if Vegas win its division, chances are that Mahomes is missing for most of the season, too.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.3%
Chance to make the playoffs: 23.4%
A third-year quarterback making an unexpected, historic transformation into an elite passer? I’m not optimistic about Daniel Jones making the sort of leap Josh Allen did last season, but then again, I wasn’t expecting Allen to turn into an MVP candidate, either. Jones certainly has plenty of weapons with which to work, although he’ll need second-year left tackle Andrew Thomas to live up to his billing as a top-five pick after an uneven rookie season.
The defense seems more likely to be up to the task, especially if Leonard Williams continues to play at a Pro Bowl level after his suddenly productive 2020 season. Again, just as was the case for the Eagles, it’s easier for the Giants to plot a path to the playoffs in the NFC East than it is for a team such as the Raiders in the AFC West. As a result, even though their odds of winning the Super Bowl are relatively similar, the Giants’ chances of making the playoffs are nearly 38% higher.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.4%
Chance to make the playoffs: 21.9%
Another team I expect to improve this season, the Falcons have more upside than I think even FPI believes. I’m optimistic about the additions of coach Arthur Smith and defensive coordinator Dean Pees and think this team was much better last season than its late-game collapses and final record suggest. In the right division and the right circumstances, the Falcons would be favorites to make an immediate turnaround and win the NFC South in 2021.
This might not be the right division or the right circumstances. Atlanta is the only team in the league with seven home games, which will hurt its chances of winning a top seed in the NFC. It’s also in a division with Tom Brady, who is unquestionably hungry to win the division title after failing to do so last season for the first time since 2002. (I guess winning a Super Bowl made up for the disappointment.) Brady seems ageless, but Father Time has come for every other quarterback before him. If that happens this season, the South will be wide open, leaving the Falcons a window to pursue their own division title.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.6%
Chance to make the playoffs: 25.7%
With a Khalil Mack-led pass rush and the veteran efficiency of Andy Dalton, it’s easy to see a scenario in which the Bears surp … OK, I’m not going to pretend with this one. The hope here has to be that No. 11 overall pick Justin Fields gets the starting job quickly and transforms the Bears on the offensive side of the ball. We’ve seen rookie quarterbacks inspire sudden improvements in the past, including Russell Wilson in Seattle and Robert Griffin in Washington, but neither of those seasons yielded a championship.
If you could somehow combine the Bears’ defense from 2018 with a rookie season for the ages from Fields, Matt Nagy’s team would look like a Super Bowl contender. This isn’t the defense from 2018, though, and Fields isn’t even in the starting lineup yet. As much as he might spur on this team, the Bears would also need vintage seasons from Mack and Akiem Hicks to really threaten the rest of the NFC. (Aaron Rodgers retiring to host Jeopardy! would also help.)
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.7%
Chance to make the playoffs: 29.0%
In 2013, Matt Rhule took over as the coach at Temple and went 2-10. The following season, he went 6-6 before following that with consecutive 10-win seasons. Moving to Baylor in 2017, Rhule inherited a mess and went 1-11 in his first season. His Bears were 7-6 the next year and 11-3 the following campaign before he left for the NFL. As you can see, the man has a track record of taking over new jobs, struggling in Year 1 and drastically improving in the subsequent seasons.
Matthew Berry breaks down a scenario where Sam Darnold could be a successful fantasy pick.
Rhule’s Panthers actually outplayed their 5-11 record from a year ago, so they’re closer than you might think. The big question is whether Sam Darnold can look like a different quarterback than the one who floundered without much help with the Jets. A resurgent Darnold and some regression toward the mean after a seven-interception season by the defense in 2020 would give the Panthers enough juice to be a threat in the NFC South. Like the Falcons, their clearest path to a home playoff game requires Tom Brady to fall off a cliff.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.8%
Chance to make the playoffs: 31.4%
A year ago, it looked like the Cardinals might have been on the path to a Super Bowl after the Hail Murray against the Bills took them to 6-3, but injuries to Kyler Murray and star edge rusher Chandler Jones helped drag them down over the final seven weeks of the season. Both are back, and while franchise stalwart Patrick Peterson is gone, Jones will be aided in his quarterback pursuits by future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt. An offense crying out for speed also added a high-upside player in second-round wideout Rondale Moore.
Back in their former stomping grounds of the NFC East, an 8-8 season for the Cardinals would have been good enough to win the division. Instead, they were a distant third in the NFC West in 2020. With the 49ers expected to return to form and the Rams adding Matthew Stafford, the competition isn’t going to get any easier. Arizona could vault into title contention if Murray goes supernova, but the toughest part of a would-be special season for Kliff Kingsbury’s team might be winning a division title.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 0.8%
Chance to make the playoffs: 32.8%
We saw last season what a Steelers run might look like, when a swarming defense, some luck in close games and just enough of an offense to give opposing defenses problems led them to start 11-0. As you can guess, what happened next is why this team is down here at No. 20: It lost five of its next six games and got bounced from the playoffs while Ben Roethlisberger looked like his arm was melting. Cap issues and retirements cost the Steelers talent this offseason, leaving them with one of the league’s worst offensive lines on paper heading into the 2021 season.
It’s pretty easy to envision what one final run for the Steelers under Roethlisberger might look like. The defense leads the league in takeaways, the new line coalesces quickly, rookie first-round pick Najee Harris takes some of the workload off of Roethlisberger and their trio of star wide receivers does the rest. It was good enough to keep them undefeated into November last season; this time, the formula has to endure all the way through February. FPI projects Pittsburgh to face the second-toughest schedule in football, so if it’s challenging for a championship, it will have earned it.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 1.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 40.8%
The Broncos, meanwhile, will face FPI’s easiest projected schedule. Imagine how hard that is to pull off when you have to play the Chiefs twice! The big story out of camp has been Teddy Bridgewater winning the starting quarterback job over Drew Lock, but this team is more likely to thrive or flail upon Vic Fangio’s defense. In addition to getting back Von Miller after the legendary edge rusher missed all of 2020 because of an ankle injury, the Broncos overhauled their corners by signing former Fangio charge Kyle Fuller and using their first-round pick on Pat Surtain II.
Bridgewater wasn’t able to propel a Panthers team with a dismal defense into many victories last season, but when he has been blessed with great defenses in Minnesota and New Orleans, he has done enough to hold up his end of the bargain. A top-five Broncos defense and an offense teeming with young players could be scarier than they look heading into the season. Not as scary as the Chiefs, perhaps, but this is the highest-ceiling Broncos team since the Peyton Manning era.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 1.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 38.9%
The Chargers usually have at least one superstar done for the season or out indefinitely with a mysterious injury by the time training camp is over, so it’s a refreshing turn of events to see their core present and accounted for heading into the regular season. New coach Brandon Staley helped turn the odds in his favor by following in Sean McVay’s footsteps and sitting stars Justin Herbert, Derwin James and Joey Bosa for the entire preseason. Chargers fans — if not the broader universe — deserve to see at least one game in which players on one of the league’s best rosters are all actually on the field at the same time.
On paper, of course, the Chargers look great. General manager Tom Telesco made massive upgrades on what was the league’s worst line by pass block win rate in 2020 by signing Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler and using a first-round pick on tackle Rashawn Slater. Staley is inexperienced, but the 38-year-old was a revelation in his lone season as the Rams’ defensive coordinator. The Chiefs stand in the way in the AFC West, but the Chargers took the Chiefs to overtime in Herbert’s debut last September. That start came on short notice after the team doctor punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung before the game; to be a Super Bowl contender this season, the Chargers will need to stop being their own worst enemy.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 1.2%
Chance to make the playoffs: 41.1%
The path for Washington to win a Super Bowl is almost identical to the one the Bucs followed to win their Super Bowl last season. Tampa went 7-9 in 2019 with a defense that looked great by advanced metrics and ordinary (or worse) by traditional ones, all because of reasons outside coordinator Todd Bowles’ control. Jameis Winston‘s interception habit left a defense that ranked sixth by DVOA on the field for way too many drives. The Bucs replaced Winston last offseason with the much steadier Brady, who ran a more efficient offense and didn’t hang the defense out to dry with giveaways. The ultimate prize followed.
Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t exactly Brady, but he’s a major upgrade for a team that ranked last in passing QBR a year ago. Ron Rivera’s team ranked third in defensive DVOA, but an utterly absent passing attack consigned Washington to 7-9. A losing record probably won’t be enough to win the NFC East again, but if Fitzpatrick is an above-average starter for the fourth consecutive season, this team won’t have to worry about sneaking into the playoffs under .500.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 1.8%
Chance to make the playoffs: 54.3%
The Colts are being torn apart by injuries; while they have to be happy to get Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson back from foot injuries as the season begins, T.Y. Hilton is out indefinitely after neck surgery. They have a deep roster, but they don’t have a lot of star-level talent; Nelson is their best player and Wentz is their most important one. If those guys re-injure their feet or come back at much less than 100 percent, Indianapolis might not be able to recover.
If the big names live up to expectations, though, the Colts have the pieces to be favorites in the AFC South. Wentz was a disaster in 2020, but he was regarded as a top-12 quarterback before that campaign. I think he can bounce back behind a much better offensive line, although left tackle remains a question until Eric Fisher is ready to play. They will be solid across the board — and we know they can beat the best teams in football on their day — but it will take a real return to form from Wentz for the Colts to do so consistently and challenge for the conference title.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 2.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 45.4%
Odd year Vikings! Minnesota has gone 34-14 (.708) in odd years under Mike Zimmer but only 30-33-1 (.477) in even years, including 7-9 last season. Disappointingly for one of the league’s best defensive coaches, it was the defense that did in this team. After never ranking lower than 11th in points allowed in any season under Zimmer, the Vikings ranked a woeful 29th. Injuries and COVID-19 opt-outs kept their stars off the field, as Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, Michael Pierce and Eric Kendricks combined to play just 13 games all season.
Enter the cavalry: the Vikings added Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson, Xavier Woods, Bashaud Breeland and Patrick Peterson to the fold this offseason. Everything seems on the table for them. If the returning veterans fix the defense and — insert annual text here — the offensive line is finally fixed, they could have one of the league’s most talented and comprehensive rosters. If the defensive vets don’t plug holes, rookie first-round tackle Christian Darrisaw struggles to return from his groin injury and Zimmer turns on Kirk Cousins, they could be sub-.500 and this year’s Eagles.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 2.2%
Chance to make the playoffs: 45.5%
The Saints aren’t quite as deep as they were in years past owing to their salary-cap crunch, but outside of the injured Michael Thomas and the retired Drew Brees, the core talent is still here. With a bevy of superstars on defense and one of the league’s most talented offensive lines, Sean Payton could transform the Saints into a team that wins — at least until Thomas gets back — by playing defense and running the ball effectively. They aren’t about to become the 1990 Giants, but after fielding a hyperefficient, pass-happy attack over the past few years with Brees, they might be more of a run-heavy, downfield passing attack with Jameis Winston.
Field Yates explains why the real winners in the Saints’ offense will be the pass-catchers with Jameis Winston as starter.
If the floor and ceiling seemed expansive for the Vikings, it’s downright vast for Winston, whose first full season under Payton as a starter will be one of the more fascinating watches of the season. If Winston really does harness his talent and eliminate, say, half of his interceptions, the Saints might look a lot like the team that went 38-10 over the past three seasons. If Winston is his old self and the Saints end up facing 14-15 drives per game on defense with a thin roster, things will be a lot more frustrating.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 2.4%
Chance to make the playoffs: 53.4%
The Patriots are going to try to win a Super Bowl with their inexperienced quarterback by going to the same formula they used in 2001. That team was deep with talented front-seven contributors, ran the ball behind a solid offensive line and asked their young quarterback to keep them in games by protecting the football. Tom Brady had his ups and downs, but after three turnovers in a loss to the Rams took the Patriots to 5-5, Brady and the Pats turned the ball over just eight times across the ensuing nine games. They won all nine and finished with a Super Bowl upset over those very same Rams.
It would be a big ask of rookie first-round pick Mac Jones to make it to the Super Bowl in his first season as a starter, too, but the Patriots have a credible argument. No team lost more to COVID-19 opt-outs in 2020, and after several years of middling and disappointing selections at the top of the draft, Bill Belichick went on the largest shopping spree in franchise history this offseason. As many as 11 of New England’s 22 starters on offense and defense could be players who weren’t on the roster last season. Belichick’s track record of getting the most out of players requires no introduction.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 2.5%
Chance to make the playoffs: 54.3%
The Patriots offshoot being built in Miami by former New England assistant Brian Flores has similar ideas, and having gone from tanking for most of 2019 to 10-6 last season, Dolphins fans rightfully have playoff expectations this upcoming season. Tua Tagovailoa didn’t look like the highly coveted quarterback we saw coming out of Alabama in his rookie season, but I’d expect things to be different in a new scheme and one year further removed from his serious hip injury.
The ceiling for the Dolphins relies on Tagovailoa, rookie first-round receiver Jaylen Waddle and Xavien Howard, whose primary concern as one of the league’s best defensive players is staying on the field. We’ve seen quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz and Lamar Jackson ride massive second seasons to MVP-caliber performances. Two of their teams won the Super Bowl. It might be too simplistic, but if Tagovailoa makes similar strides, it would hardly be surprising if the Dolphins followed suit.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 2.5%
Chance to make the playoffs: 57.0%
It’s tempting to say that the Cowboys were sunk last season by Dak Prescott‘s ankle injury or the absence of several star offensive linemen, but even if you leave the offense aside, a team with Dallas’ defense wasn’t going anywhere. No defense in the league made more mental mistakes or was as sloppy as this one, and the Cowboys replaced coordinator Mike Nolan after one season with Former Atlanta coach Dan Quinn. Quinn’s Falcons teams weren’t exactly defensive stalwarts, but if he can get Dallas to even be competent on defense, it would be a huge step in the right direction.
An average defense would be enough to make the Cowboys viable Super Bowl contenders if the offense lives up to expectations. No offense in the league should be getting more talent back from injury than this one, but the stars who missed time last season are already dealing with issues. Prescott missed time in camp with a mysterious shoulder injury. He’s back to full health, but Tyron Smith is dealing with a groin issue, La’el Collins just made it back to practice after dealing with a stinger and Zack Martin is out for Thursday’s opener against the Bucs after he tested positive for COVID-19. The list of names for the Cowboys on offense should terrify opposing defenses, but they have to get on the field together before this team can do anything more than dream.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 2.6%
Chance to make the playoffs: 59.9%
We know the Titans can beat their key opponents in the AFC. Over the past two seasons, they’ve blown out the Bills by 26, beaten the Chiefs in a 35-32 shootout and won two of their three battles against the Ravens. They’ve also lost to the Bengals and Jaguars, which is a quick reminder of how frustrating Mike Vrabel’s team can be from week to week. The Titans were able to ride a dominant stretch from Derrick Henry and some well-timed red zone defense to the AFC Championship Game two years ago before Patrick Mahomes found them out. We know they’re a team nobody is going to want to play in January.
If they do make it to January, though, do the Titans have the pass defense to have any hope of slowing down someone like Mahomes or Josh Allen? General manager Jon Robinson flipped his defensive spending this offseason, cutting most of an underperforming secondary while repurposing much of that money for Bud Dupree. The former Steelers standout should give the Titans the lead edge rusher they didn’t have a year ago when Jadeveon Clowney struggled, but can the new-look secondary keep up for an entire playoff run?
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 4.6%
Chance to make the playoffs: 63.2%
You saw the Seahawks look like a Super Bowl contender for the first half of last season, when Russell Wilson was an early shoo-in for MVP and Seattle started 6-1. Reality hit with a 2-3 stretch, and while the defense tightened up and helped it win the final five games of the year, the same offense that scored 30-plus points in seven of its first eight games topped 30 just once in the final eight, and even that required help from the Jets.
It would be too simplistic for a standard prediction to just say that the Seahawks will be great by combining their offense from the first half and the defense from the second half, but if we’re looking to predict how they might win a Super Bowl, that’s the most logical way for Wilson & Co. to get there. The move to hire Rams assistant Shane Waldron as offensive coordinator could lead to early-season growing pains, but if Wilson is clicking on all cylinders as the playoffs approach, nobody will care about what happened in September.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 5.2%
Chance to make the playoffs: 68.7%
Matt Ryan in 2016. Aaron Rodgers in 2020. Two quarterbacks who dramatically improved their performance and shockingly won league MVP in their second seasons working out of the Kubiak/Shanahan scheme. Guess who’s about to enter his second year in that offense? Baker Mayfield already made major strides in his first season under Kevin Stefanski, and in a critical season for the 2018 No. 1 overall pick, he’ll get back Odell Beckham Jr. after the former Giants star missed most of 2020 with a torn ACL.
Matthew Berry explains why he isn’t targeting Odell Beckham Jr. this fantasy season.
The Browns got better as the season went on in 2020 and made major investments this offseason to shore up the weak spots up the middle in their defense. I’m skeptical that everything will go quite as planned for them, but there’s no denying that they could have really impressive talent on both sides of the ball if things break right. If the Ravens don’t live up to expectations and the AFC North race is easier than planned, the Browns could be in position to compete with the Chiefs for the AFC’s lone first-round bye.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 5.3%
Chance to make the playoffs: 64.9%
The Rams bet two first-round picks, nearly $25 million in dead cap space and whatever money they’re going to pay Matthew Stafford on an extension that the former Lions quarterback is significantly better than Jared Goff. I’m inclined to agree, but the Rams were also sure enough that Goff was their guy two years ago to give him a massive extension at the first available opportunity. It’s entirely possible that the Rams win that 13-3 slugfest with the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII if Stafford is their signal-caller.
This isn’t that Rams team, though, and while they’ve added Jalen Ramsey to the fold, this team is missing years of top draft picks and down lots of cap space. Suitably for its home city, this is a team of superstars. If Stafford, Ramsey, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Andrew Whitworth and Leonard Floyd are world-beaters, they will likely be very good. They’re already down Cam Akers to a torn Achilles, though, and we saw how thin the defense immediately looked without Donald when he was limited in the playoff loss to the Packers. Sean McVay’s team will go far as their star players will take them.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 5.6%
Chance to make the playoffs: 68.5%
Three of the past four teams on this list have been from the NFC West, which should tell you just how talented and how tough that division should be in 2021. FPI likes the 49ers slightly more than the competition, although I’m not sure how it feels about the debate between Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance. Whatever competition there was seems to have been settled by default now that Lance has suffered a finger injury; the 49ers will guarantee Garoppolo’s $25 million compensation for 2021 by keeping him on the active roster for Week 1.
Will the 49ers try to pull off the Chief’s Alex Smith/Patrick Mahomes approach from 2017? Or will it be like the Smith/Colin Kaepernick season in San Francisco in 2012, when Kaepernick came in for an injured Smith and never gave back the job? I think it could be something more like the Ravens’ Joe Flacco/Lamar Jackson situation in 2018, where Jackson was used early in the season for certain packages before eventually coming in for an injured Flacco later in the season. Lance undoubtedly offers a higher ceiling, but given that Garoppolo came within one deep completion of winning the Super Bowl two years ago, the floor isn’t too bad with the incumbent, either.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 6.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 69.7%
It’s easy to discount the Ravens as a great team with a fatal postseason flaw. Since Lamar Jackson took over as Baltimore’s starting quarterback in the middle of 2018, the Ravens have gone 30-7 in the regular season, which would prorate out to just under 14 wins in a 17-game season. They’ve also gone 1-3 in the postseason, and while I think I’d pin the 2019 divisional-round loss to the Titans more on sloppy play from the receivers and bad luck than anything else, the offense simply hasn’t gotten the job done across their three losses. It isn’t hard to find people who are happy to write off Jackson & Co. come January.
And yet, teams like this still do break through. Peyton Manning lost his first three playoff games by a combined score of 83-33 and then ran into what looked like his kryptonite in the New England defense. The Colts lost twice in the playoffs to the Pats, were upset by the Steelers as 8.5-point favorites at home the season after that, and then … rolled off four straight wins the following postseason to get Manning his first Super Bowl, beating the Patriots along the way. Flacco was awful in three season-ending losses and then saw Lee Evans drop what would have been a career-defining touchdown against the Patriots for a fourth. He proceeded to have one of the best postseasons in league history in winning the Super Bowl the following season. It might seem like Jackson and the Ravens are stuck, but they’ll break through eventually if they keep making it to the playoffs.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 6.6%
Chance to make the playoffs: 70.5%
This one’s easy, right? The Packers have made it to the NFC Championship Game in consecutive seasons, and while their loss to the 49ers in 2019 was comprehensive, their narrow defeat at the hands of Brady and Tampa Bay last season was by the tightest of margins and required some inexplicable officiating throughout the contest. Matt LaFleur’s decision to kick a field goal down by eight in the fourth quarter has already become a meme and would suggest his game management is a concern, but it seems more like a strange aberration for a coach who was right around league average in terms of aggressiveness on fourth down last season.
I’m on record as suggesting that the Packers won’t top their 13 wins from a year ago, but barring a Rodgers injury, they should still be competing for one of the top spots in the NFC. The offensive line is a legitimate concern with Corey Linsley gone to Los Angeles and David Bakhtiari out for at least six weeks on the PUP list, but as long as Bakhtiari is back for the stretch run, the Packers should be able to protect their star quarterback. We even saw the offense look just fine without Davante Adams for stretches over the last two seasons. It would hardly be a surprise to see Green Bay make a third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship Game; let’s just hope Rodgers’ coaches don’t take the keys out of his hands yet again.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 9.4%
Chance to make the playoffs: 79.0%
Likewise, while the Bills came up short in the 2020 AFC Championship Game amid underlying numbers that would seem to suggest a decline in 2021, it would hardly be a surprise if they won 11-12 games and still made it back to the conference final. Josh Allen has improved as much as any quarterback in recent league history over his first three seasons, and there’s nothing from the tape or the numbers suggesting his 2020 performance was a fluke. If anything, given how much better he has gotten over his first three seasons, it would seem foolish to rule out the possibility that he gets even better in 2021.
In what would have been a bizarre sentence to write a year or two ago, the Bills will be hoping that their defense doesn’t need to be carried by Allen and the offense again in 2021. Tre’Davious White & Co. ranked second in defensive DVOA in 2018, but they fell to seventh in 2019 and 12th in 2012. Unsurprisingly, the Bills invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball this season, using their top two draft picks on edge rushers while re-signing linebacker Matt Milano. Blessed with what is now one of the deepest defensive lines in football, Buffalo’s path to the Super Bowl would probably require a game in which the front seven faces the Chiefs and roughly approximates what the Tampa front seven did to Mahomes in Super Bowl LV.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 14.1%
Chance to make the playoffs: 85.6%
You don’t need me to tell you about a scenario in which the Buccaneers win the Super Bowl, because you just saw a virtually identical roster to the one that’s about to roll out in 2021 destroy the Chiefs at the end of last season. Tampa’s most significant loss from the 2020 roster is utility offensive lineman Joe Haeg, who played 12% of the offensive snaps and was most memorable for dropping a would-be touchdown in the Super Bowl. If Tom Brady needs an option at the goal line to replace Haeg, he can instead throw to tight end O.J. Howard, who is back from a torn Achilles.
Bringing everyone back isn’t always a successful strategy for a Super Bowl winner, but the Bucs were a great team during the regular season, too. Tampa ranked second in DVOA behind the Saints, and the gap between those two teams could mostly be chalked up to New Orleans having much better special teams. There’s no foolproof way to get back to a Super Bowl — and the Bucs would be vulnerable if Brady did fall off the proverbial cliff at 44 — but that’s a risk Bruce Arians’ team will be happy to take.
Chance to win Super Bowl LVI: 19.2%
Chance to make the playoffs: 89.4%
They have Patrick Mahomes.