With an intriguing NFL season in store, our resident tipster Ross Williams picks out his best bets along with a Super Bowl winner.
1pt e.w. Cleveland Browns to win Super Bowl 56 at 16/1 (General 1/2 1,2)
1pt NFC South Exact Finishing Order: Buccaneers, Panthers, Saints, Falcons at 8/1 (Sky Bet)
1pt AFC North Exact Finishing Order: Browns, Ravens, Steelers, Bengals at 11/2 (Sky Bet)
1pt AFC East Exact Finishing Order: Bills, Patriots, Dolphins, Jets at 9/2 (Sky Bet)
1pt NFC East Exact Finishing Order: Washington, Cowboys, Giants, Eagles at 8/1 (Sky Bet)
The 2021 NFL season is finally here and there’s just enough time to get those outright bets locked in before the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Dallas Cowboys in Thursday night’s season opener.
With an intriguing season in store, our resident tipster Ross Williams has taken a look at each of the eight divisions in turn, along with predicting which team will be lifting the Lombardi Trophy in February...
If this team were called anything but the CLEVELAND BROWNS, they would not be 16/1 to lift the Lombardi Trophy this season.
For years, Cleveland has been the laughing stock of the NFL (and quite rightly) but in 2021, they have a chance to silence every critic in the most emphatic way possible.
Offensively, the Browns are stacked. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are one of the best rushing tandems in the league, while the duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. are – on their day – as talented as they come. Add in a strong offensive line, plus a quarterback coming off his best year and you have a dream recipe.
Meanwhile on defence, the Browns are nothing short of frightening. There is talent at every level, headlined by the formidable Myles Garrett, who will be helped out by former first-overall pick Jadaveon Clowney and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a young rookie who I fancy to be the best long-term pick of this year’s Draft.
The talent is undeniable, and I feel the playoff win over Pittsburgh last season will be instrumental in getting this franchise over its mental hump. Cleveland are no longer the bridesmaids at the Ravens and Steelers’ wedding.
The Browns should be a match for anyone in the NFL this season, making the best price of 16/1 to win it all an absolute steal.
The Cincinnati Bengals’ priority this season will be keeping Joe Burrow healthy and on the field, and that’s pretty much where their aspirations should fade. Cincy was always going to be a slow build, and I’d fully expect them to stay rooted to the bottom of the AFC North for at least a year or two more.
Meanwhile, Baltimore’s offence - led by Lamar Jackson - looked to be trending up for 2021 with the addition of some much-needed receiver help, but recent injuries to running backs J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill are damaging and may put too much stress on the shoulders of their remaining back, Gus Edwards.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Ravens are always strong, but I do suspect they won’t be all that much better than they were a year ago. Though admittedly, their 2020 performances did allow them to coast safely into the postseason, as they should again.
Likewise, Pittsburgh prides itself on its defence and the T.J. Watt-led unit will undoubtedly impress again. However, I have serious concerns over the Steelers when they are in possession. Ben Roethlisberger has been left behind by an ever-evolving league and there’s no question that his days in the NFL are numbered. His team will ride with the future Hall of Famer during what may be his final season, but sentiment may only result in ‘Big Ben’ ending his playing days with something of a whimper.
I can’t help but feel that the recent Playoff encounter between the Steelers and the Browns was a sign of things to come. Cleveland battered their divisional rivals in an early barrage and Pittsburgh were never able to recover. Since then, Mike Tomlin’s side have papered over the cracks, whereas the young, hungry Browns have strengthened in key areas, added further explosion to their outfit via the Draft and taken on the experience of a hotly-contested battle with the Chiefs back in January.
On paper, they have a roster to rival anyone, and I believe that pays dividends this season.
At long last, the Buffalo Bills clinched an AFC East title in 2020 and they were excellent value for their victory, going all the way to the AFC Championship game.
Sean McDermott’s well-drilled team are heavily favoured to repeat and, in all honesty, they should do so easily with the talent they have at their disposal in Western New York, assuming nothing happens to star quarterback Josh Allen.
With the New York Jets likely to be one of the worst teams in the league as they begin their long re-build process with rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, the real battle in the East is for second spot, which may or may not provide one of the three all-important Wildcards.
The Dolphins should have every chance in this instance, but I worry about the uncertainty surrounding Tua Tagovailoa. He’s the starting quarterback in Miami for now, but various reports have indicated that the coaching staff are not all-in on the former Alabama stand-out, with some even suggesting that Miami are still involved in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes.
In this case, with such fine margins between the two rivals, I will always side with the team that knows who their leader is. This time last week, this wasn’t nearly as clear in New England, but Bill Belichick has since been bold in his efforts to get the Patriots in order.
In one fell swoop, Cam Newton was released and the impressive rookie Mac Jones was handed the reins.
It’s yet to be seen just how good Mac will be in the big leagues, but with Belichick and Josh McDaniels in his ear and an offence at his disposal that saw some major spending this offseason, he could not have a better opportunity to succeed.
The Houston Texans are widely expected to be the NFL’s whipping boys in 2021 and I firmly expect them to prop up the rest of the AFC South with only a handful of wins this season, if any at all.
Just above them should be the Jacksonville Jaguars – a team with hope in the form of Trevor Lawrence, but a severe lack of firepower elsewhere. The Jags’ time may come, but we are a few seasons away from seeing the UK’s adopted franchise at full tilt.
The AFC South fun will be had at the top of the division, with the Colts and Titans once again fighting it out at the summit. Tennessee have had the edge in recent seasons and the smart money would be on the Titans claiming the title once more.
There’s little to split the two sides in all honesty, but the low Covid-19 vaccination numbers within the Colts’ ranks is an issue that will likely come back to bite them in a big way if they aren’t extra careful, and it’s more than enough reason to side with Mike Vrabel’s Titans.
The Chiefs are simply too good to not extend their run of AFC West titles, so we can take that one to the bank right now. However, the rest of the division is starting to close in on the 2019 champions, slowly but surely.
The Chargers – under the watchful eye of former Rams defensive mastermind Brandon Staley – are a bonafide dark horse in 2021 due to the electric quarterback play of Justin Herbert, whereas the Denver Broncos looks like a renewed threat with Teddy Bridgewater at QB and receiver Courtland Sutton returning from injury.
These two franchises should enjoy a tussle for second spot this season, which I predict the Chargers should eventually win due to the extra talent under centre.
The Raiders look rudderless at the moment due to some odd personnel moves in the offseason and (another) sketchy NFL Draft. They should be good for a few wins in their new Las Vegas home, but I wouldn’t be expecting the silver and black to pull up any trees.
After the media circus that was Aaron Rodgers’ offseason, it almost seems surreal that we are a day away from the NFL season and the Green Bay Packers roster looks so familiar.
Alas, Rodgers stayed, as did his partner-in-crime Davante Adams and they even managed to convince the front office to bring in their old pal Randall Cobb.
I don’t quite buy into the ‘Last Dance’ storyline that has already been attached to the 2021 Packers as I simply don’t believe this team is better than the two previous iterations, that both failed to conquer the NFC Championship game. But, I do think that they should still be the best team in their division, for what that’s worth.
Battling it out for silver should be the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, with Detroit well out of the equation as they begin a rebuilding process under new head coach Dan Campbell.
With the offensive rookie of the year in tow, Minnesota are the safe money to secure second place, but I can’t help but feel Chicago may just find a way to do enough – again.
Andy Dalton will start the season at quarterback, but the immensely talented Justin Fields is waiting in the wings and I don’t believe we’ll pass the halfway point of the season without seeing him on the field.
Chicago’s defence is still strong enough, and Fields may well prove to be one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. If the Bears can make the playoffs with Mitch Trubisky, they absolutely can with Justin Fields.
The East was nothing short of awful last season, but 2021 should bring an upturn in performance in each of these four teams.
The Eagles and Giants are in similar boats this season, as they each have quarterbacks that NEED to impress in order to secure the starting job a year from now. Daniel Jones and Jalen Hurts have tough tasks ahead of them, but I suspect Jones may end the year in the better position, if only due to the investment New York put in during the free agency period to help him on his way.
Hurts had no such luck at that pivotal point of the offseason, and he’ll be forced to pray that rookie receiver DeVonta Smith can live up to his lofty expectations.
With Dak Prescott back under centre after a premature end to last season, Dallas will have renewed optimism in 2021. They boast an impressive offensive roster headlined by Zeke Elliott, and the defence that let them down so much a year ago now boasts Micah Parsons – the best defensive prospect in this year’s NFL Draft.
However, the Cowboys may just fall short of a playoff return this season, as the Washington Football Team looked primed to capitalise on a sneakily good 2020 season.
Washington now have stability at quarterback – at least for this season – in the form of fan favourite Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the former Harvard student will have plenty of help in the form of Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel.
Ron Rivera’s team should be able to move the football on offence, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Defensively, Washington have a legitimate top-five unit in the NFL, led by Chase Young and one of the scariest front sevens the game has seen for a long while.
The Football Team will give the rest of the NFC East sleepless nights, and I believe they can ride this fear factor all the way to the postseason.
The reigning Super Bowl champions – returning their entire starting unit for 2021 – should blitz the division they once struggled to get a foothold in.
At 44, Tom Brady somehow looks as good as ever and the roster around him is nothing short of remarkable. The Bucs are widely tipped to win a second-straight Super Bowl and, although I don’t agree that they’ll go all the way again, I’d be amazed if Tampa don’t at least make it to the NFC Championship game.
The rest of the NFC South leaves plenty to be desired, however.
In the immediate aftermath of the Drew Brees era and a salary cap apocalypse, the New Orleans Saints look a shadow of their former selves and it will take a superhuman effort from Alvin Kamara and Jameis Winston to lift this new-look team into Wildcard contention. Likewise, the Atlanta Falcons are horrid defensively and although they added a potential superstar in tight end Kyle Pitts, it’s difficult to imagine the team with 2020’s fourth-worst record improving substantially on that performance.
This opens the door for the Carolina Panthers to slide into the NFC South’s second spot. A team on the rise, Matt Rhule’s outfit have drafted well in recent years, slowly building a defence capable of holding its own. Plus, the offence welcomes back Christian McCaffrey to the fold, along with quarterback Sam Darnold, a talented player awarded a shot at a big-money contract if he can prove that it was the Jets – and not himself – that have so far stifled his career.
The best division in the NFL in 2021, and it’s not especially close.
None of the four NFC West outfits this season would look out of place in the playoffs, leading many to suggest that at least two of the NFC’s three wildcard spots will go to one of the following.
With Russell Wilson under centre, the Seahawks are always capable of something special, but I do feel that this is the season that will signal the beginning of the end of Pete Carroll’s long and illustrious reign as head coach.
The Hawks have changed their offensive coaching staff over the offseason, and it remains to be seen what impact this will have on how Seattle shape up over the course of this year. However, regardless of the changes to the offensive side of the ball, they showed frailty against the run last season and Seattle don’t seem to have done enough to negate that. With so many great rushing teams around the league at present, this is a major worry.
Arizona are a team that adopted a ‘win now’ mentality with their offseason signings of J.J. Watt and A.J. Green, but it does seem like the Cardinals may be running before they can walk. Kyler Murray and his team started the 2020 season like a house on fire, before folding unceremoniously with an extended streak of losses in the latter half of the year.
They’re a fun team to watch and Arizona will undoubtedly beat some good teams this season, but they’re not ready for a real run at the Super Bowl, yet.
With all the hype around them, the Los Angeles Rams – now armed with Matt Stafford at quarterback – are a near cert for the playoffs, but the recent injury to starting running back Cam Akers and the niggling uncertainty that always comes with a QB entering a completely new environment makes me too uneasy to crown them division champs.
The Rams will be mighty close, but I feel that the 49ers might just snatch the title away from the favourites, after a year where they were crippled with injury.
The 2019 NFC Champions will be back with a vengeance this season, with Nick Bosa in particular eager to make up for lost time. Plus, there’s the added element of Trey Lance, the electric young quarterback who is set to split time with starter Jimmy Garoppolo, creating a scenario that will terrify defensive co-ordinators the league over.
Odds correct at 0945 BST (09/09/21)
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