Welcome to the new Wednesday edition of Bucs Briefing! From now on, my weekly column will appear each Wednesday morning, typically detailing seven key observations on the team.
But in today’s edition, we’ll actually focus on the NFL as a whole, looking at the top competition for the Bucs in the NFC, the state of the top teams in the league and the toughest matchups Tampa Bay will face this season.
State Of The NFC
Right now, it is hard to look at anyone in the NFC as a Super Bowl representative outside of the Bucs and Packers. I don’t even think that’s me being biased for the AFC. Obviously things change in season, but last year there were about 5-6 teams in the NFC that most would have called true contenders. This year, it’s a lot harder to make that statement.
Here are my division winners in the NFC with their projected records, strength and weaknesses included.
NFC West: Los Angeles Rams (11-6)
The Rams are obviously improved thanks to the addition of Matt Stafford, but to what degree? Stafford hasn’t played a snap in the preseason. How long will it take he and Sean McVay and the offense to gel? Stafford is a good quarterback for sure, but he’s never even won a playoff game. Obviously the biggest portion of blame for that statistic lies with his supporting cast in Detroit, but the Rams have their holes, too.
Rams head coach Sean McVay – Photo by: USA Today
After losing Cam Akers for the season, who will carry the ground game? The Rams offensive line is solid, but not the strength it used to be. I question how they’ll hold up in the less gimmicky passing attack we may see from Stafford and McVay this year.
Any defense with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey will be tough to beat, but the Rams lost a few pieces there, too. Defensive backs Troy Hill and John Johnson were coming off career seasons and signed elsewhere. But defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, one of the more innovative schemers we’ve seen in the past decade, is the real loss. It remains to be seen if Raheem Morris can replicate some of Staley’s success.
The Rams are good, no question there. But are they cohesive? Can new, inexperienced pieces step up in the secondary? Will Donald get any help up front? There’s a ton of talent in L.A., but making the Super Bowl in 2021 feels like a huge jump.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers (12-5)
The news that left tackle David Bakhtiari will miss at least the first six weeks of the season is a huge blow for the Packers. They struggled without him at times last season, including in the NFC Championship Game against the Bucs. Green Bay has a good roster, but its offensive line is unproven, and if Davante Adams goes down, the receiving group is a bunch of role players.
Of course, Aaron Rodgers is so good that all of that might not matter. The Packers are loaded with talent on defense, but coaching held them back a year ago. The arrival of Joe Barry from the Rams could change a lot of that. If Green Bay’s underachieving defense turns over a new leaf and Rodgers-to-Adams is as special as ever, the Packers will compete for a Super Bowl title. Again.
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys (11-6)
If the Cowboys offensive line can stay healthy, it could be the best offense in the NFL. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and that receiving corps is a scary proposition, even without protection up front. Banking on Tyron Smith and La’El Collins’ health may be scary, but if those two can deliver, the Cowboys offense should be unbelievable.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and QB Dak Prescott – Photo by: USA Today
Defensively, the Cowboys are basically on the other end of the spectrum. There is more talent than a year ago, but still very little experience. All the cornerbacks are young, and the safety play remains a huge question mark. Do the Cowboys have an every-down threat up front outside of Demarcus Lawrence? Are there any difference makes on their interior defensive line?
Dallas should win the NFC East unless they fall apart. But beyond that, I’m not sure what the ceiling is for this team in 2021.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Bucs (14-3)
The Saints will still be tough, make no mistake. Their offensive line remains elite, and Sean Payton is still one of the best offensive coaches on the planet. New Orleans lost some pieces on defense, but the nucleus for a Top 10 group remains in place again in 2021.
But the Saints are no longer a Super Bowl contender, not with question marks at quarterback, wide receiver and cornerback. Those are three of the top five most important positions in the game, and New Orleans just aren’t talented enough to overcome that. The Bucs offense still has to figure out how to consistently produce against the Saints defense, but I think this is the year Tampa Bay breaks through.
The Bucs haven’t won the division since 2007, but that should change in 2021. There simply isn’t a team in the South that can hold a candle to Tampa Bay’s talent, and we know the team’s leadership is on point. If the coaching continues to adapt and stay unpredictable, the Bucs will be the best team in the South and in the entire conference.
Wild Card Teams
Finding three other playoff-worthy teams in the NFC was tough for me, but in the end I chose the 49ers (11-6), Seahawks (10-7) and Saints (10-7) to sneak in. The Vikings and Washington could contend for a spot too, but I don’t see any of those five options as real contenders. The 49ers have the talent to be, especially if they can finally stay healthy. But is Jimmy Garoppolo capable of taking them to the promised land again? I don’t see it. And Trey Lance doesn’t look ready yet in preseason action.
Saints HC Sean Payton – Photo by: USA Today
The Saints are well-coached enough on both sides of the ball to make it, especially considering they should get four wins against Atlanta and Carolina. Seattle has more holes than a cheese grater on defense, but Russell Wilson always seems to find a way to make them competitive. They’ll be solid once again this year.
NFL’s Best Reside In AFC
Outside of the Bucs, the three other best teams in the NFL hail from the AFC. Kansas City, Buffalo and Cleveland are all loaded for monster seasons. The Bills and Browns are stacked with talent from top to bottom, and have quarterbacks on upward trajectories. Kansas City has way more holes, but its offensive line should be improved, and Patrick Mahomes is the great equalizer. They will still be the favorites in 2021.
The fifth best team in the NFL is either Green Bay or Los Angeles, with a nod of respect to Baltimore. Unless the Chargers have some magic in them, it’s hard for me to envision an AFC team other than Kansas City, Buffalo or Cleveland representing the AFC in Super Bowl LVI.
Bucs’ Path To The Playoffs
According to my predictions, the Bucs will face six 2021 playoff teams this season in Dallas, Los Angeles, New England, New Orleans (2x) and Buffalo. The Colts, Dolphins and Washington might be close, but I think all three miss the cut.
Of my six predicted playoff teams that Tampa Bay will face, only three are division winners in my mind. And the Patriots will be starting a rookie quarterback in Week 4 and be without star cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
The Bucs begin the season with three of their toughest games over the first four weeks. Starting slow won’t be an option. The games may be tough, but this team is too talented to go into Week 5 at 2-2. Tampa Bay’s offense needs to be a juggernaut from the jump.
At worst, the Bucs should be 12-5 division winners this season. At best, the team could be looking at a one or two-loss season. A lot happens over the course of 17 games, but the Bucs have the talent to be a league-best type of team. We know the leadership and focus is there, and the coaching looked like it would be there too, if last year’s playoffs are any indication.
In eight days, we stop predicting and we start reacting to real games and real player performances. I can’t wait.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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