After correctly picking the Kansas City Chiefs to win last season's Super Bowl, Paul Higham previews the new NFL season with his predictions and best bets.
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It doesn’t get any tougher than this – trying to figure out what’s going to happen in any NFL season is a huge puzzle, trying to work out this, of all seasons, is just ridiculously difficult, but it should be fun finding out.
There’s so much you have to take into consideration for this season, the main factors being crowds, Covid-19 opt-outs and the extra play-off places that have been added this season. It means that A) a plucky seventh seed could really make an impact with a strong finish and B) that top spot is even more crucial with just one first round bye up for grabs.
The lack of fans is also a huge point to factor in – firstly because it varies team-by-team whether fans are allowed in at all, and if so how many. Given how big home advantage is in the NFL this has to enter into your thinking when trying to pick a winner.
Doubts are always there, surprises always happen, the San Francisco 49ers were only denied the Super Bowl by Patrick Mahomes’ genius in February, yet they’d won just four games the previous year and that’s by no means uncommon.
There are a number of teams who fit that worst-to-first profile this season, but on the whole I think we’ll find some familiar faces in and around the final stages again – teams who had good teams last year and haven’t suffered too many losses can thrive again and make light of the fact there was no pre-season this year.
So as we try and get accustomed to an NFL with hardly any fans, without a pre-season, without a number of opt-outs, and with Tom Brady NOT playing for the New England Patriots (in some eyes the most disturbing off-season development of them all) what can we count on? And how can we pick a winner?
Why the champs can double up
Aged just 24, and having played just two full seasons in the NFL, Patrick Mahomes has already ‘completed it’ so to speak, having led the Kansas City Chiefs to Super Bowl glory a year after claiming the league MVP award. Only 13 players have ever won both.
I won’t go on too much about how the Chiefs were our winning Super Bowl selection last year, not here anyway, but it’s almost a copy-and-paste job for us this time around as not too much has changed.
Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are all there on offence, joined by exciting rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Chris Jones remains as their defensive leader. They’re settled in their playing and coaching roster and there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t go again.
It’s no walkover, there’s a reason why only the Patriots and Seahawks have made consecutive Super Bowls in the last 20 years, and why only seven teams have defended their trophy (Pittsburgh did it twice) – but all the pieces are there and this year especially any up-and-coming challengers have had precious time robbed from them to prepare their campaigns.
It’s all too easy to bill the champs as the ‘next big dynasty’ but only New England have truly been that of late – the aforementioned Seattle came close but mainly it’s been boom and bust for teams like the Rams, Falcons, Eagles and Panthers who’ve promised to become real forces but never really got close.
So what’s the difference? Well, firstly Mahomes, and secondly this team has been Super Bowl ready for a while now, ever since coach Andy Reid came in to town really and turned a 2-14 team into an 11-5 one - and they’ve made the play-offs in six of the last seven seasons.
And consider their play-off efforts, even pre-Mahomes, they lost to the Steelers without allowing a touchdown, and then lost to the Titans after QB Marcus Mariota managed to catch his own deflected pass to score a crucial touchdown.
Then of course they had that late Dee Ford offside penalty that cost them victory over the Patriots in 2019 and a place in the Super Bowl – when they’d have fancied their chances of beating the Rams just as New England did.
They could already be back-to-back champions, and that level of consistent performance coupled with the bizarre circumstances around this season, throwing in one supremely talented future Hall of Fame quarterback and this team are worthy favourites and there’s no shame at all in backing them.
Plus, any team that produces three comebacks in all three play-off games to win a Super Bowl has character in spades, not to mention a ferocious scoring power we’ve barely seen before. 24-0 down to Houston quickly became 41-24 in front, two ten-point leads for Tennessee wiped out in the blink of an eye and then that fourth-quarter Super Bowl comeback. They’re the ones to beat.
The main contenders
KC will not have it all their own way of course, nobody ever does in the NFL, but before a real snap has been played in anger you have question marks, even minor ones, about all the main contenders that just don’t exist with KC.
Baltimore look a great team, MVP Lamar Jackson another superstar QB, but they got found out by the Titans in the play-offs and until you win a post-season game there’s always doubt. It'd be no surprise to see the Ravens v Chiefs being the AFC title game - and no real surprise if Baltimore won it, but until they prove themselves then the the Ravens have to play second fiddle to the Chiefs.
The Saints could be the best all-round outfit in football, but QB Drew Brees is now a 40-something and they’ve had a nasty habit recently of finding ways to lose the big play-off games – while the 49ers need to get over the massive disappointment of losing Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
San Francisco at 8/1 seem a bit on the short side to me for the Super Bowl given the greater NFC strength with the Saints (10/) and Dallas Cowboys (14/1) both jam-packed with talent, the Seahawks (18/1) are certainly ones to keep an eye on if they let Russell Wilson off the leash and the Eagles are also expected to improve.
It’s a big fight for play-off places and even though we have seven this time around it’s still a tough one to pick them all out – we haven’t even mentioned the Green Bay Packers, who came up just short of the Super Bowl last season but made a real mess of the Draft to upset one of the best quarterbacks we’ve ever seen in Aaron Rodgers by selecting his would-be replacement instead of some much-needed receiving help.
The dark horses
I find it almost impossible to believe we’ve got this far without mentioning Tom Brady’s blockbuster move from the Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You can read all about his free agency move here, but what happens next is now one of the hot topics of the entire season.
The Bucs have excelled at mediocrity over the last decade or so, making just two play-off appearances since their 2002 Super Bowl success and going 12 fruitless seasons without post-season football. Yet with Brady, they’re 4/9 to make the play-offs this season, just shorter than his former team New England (4/7) who have dominated during that time.
It’s crazy, but when you think the Pats have lost Brady and a host of starters due to coronavirus opt-outs then you can begin to understand it. Bill Belichick is still there of course and you could easily see the Pats making the play-offs, but many now fancy the Buffalo Bills to finally end the Pats’ reign in the AFC East.
For Brady, remarkably he goes into Sunday’s season opener with the Saints as an underdog for the first time in a regular season game since 2015 – that’s 74 straight games as a favourite. He’s definitely got an upgrade in terms of receivers and with Rob Gronkowski also joining him they’ll be a fun team to watch this season.
You can’t see them topping out the Saints in the NFC South, but 2/1 on them being an NFC wildcard team is certainly one for the shortlist.
What to back this season?
Dallas are an intriguing team this year, as yet again they’re loaded with talent but they’ve got a new coach in charge with Super Bowl winner Mike McCarthy – who could finally get this team to make a big post-season push.
The worry would be he hasn’t had time or enough access to his players to get his message across, but the 5/6 to win their division seems fair as they should take NFC East honours and 8/1 to win the NFC also stands out given their talent, you just can’t really see them sinking the Saints if it came to it.
Individually, QB Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott were right up there with the passing yards and rushing yards leaders last season after coming second and fourth respectively. Prescott has a point to prove to earn a new contract and Elliott wasn’t fully up to speed to start last season due to another contract wrangle.
The Brady move means the Bucs are all the rage in the NFC South but the Saints are good, very good, and so the stand-out 11/10 price on New Orleans winning the division needs to be taken.
The Arizona Cardinals are another team to watch – QB Kyler Murray was the offensive rookie of the year last year and he’s now throwing to one of the best receivers in the business after DeAndre Hopkins arrived from Houston.
If the NFC West wasn’t so tough they’d be nailed-on for the play-offs, but since the division has had two different teams in the last two Super Bowls, and neither were the always-tough Seahawks, it’s always going to be an uphill battle. The division title is beyond Arizona but with three wildcards available the play-offs certainly aren’t.
MVP a two-horse race
In the MVP market it’d seem a straight fight between Jackson and Mahomes from Baltimore and Kansas City – they could even be playing for the award in the AFC title game. Jackson’s running ability means he can produce better stats, and anything like his mind-boggling output last year will see him become the first back-to-back winner since Peyton Manning in 2008/09.
Brady will be popular at 18/1 as with the options at his disposal he could throw touchdowns at will, if protected by his offensive line. For an outsider here though what about that man Prescott again. 16/1 for a quarterback who can pass and run on a well-fancied team, Amercia’s Team no less.
It’s tough to see beyond the top two in reality though, and for individual honours Dallas running back Elliott seems the value at 9/1 to top the rushing charts since he’ll hit the ground running, quite literally, this season after a sluggish start last term.
He was a touch under 200 yards behind winner and this year’s favourite Derrick Henry, who was monstrous and borderline unplayable last season with single game totals of 149, 159, 188 and 211 yards. That’s hard to repeat though and Elliott can get back on top and claim the award for a third time.
NFL 2020/21 season best bets
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- Burrow goes No.1 pick
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