NFL record projections 2021: Can Tom Brady, Buccaneers repeat as Super Bowl champs?

Nate Davis
USA TODAY

It's hard to recall a year when projecting the regular-season record for all 32 NFL teams felt like such a weird, well, project.

First, there’s the new 17-game schedule clubs will play moving forward. Barring a random 8-8-1 finish, .500 seasons are now a thing of the past. The crooked records simply look strange – a 12-4 finish “felt” like a very strong campaign, but 12-5 just appears oddly diluted even beyond the obvious additional defeat. And the parity that has become one of the league’s hallmarks will likely only be reinforced given reigning division champions will play an additional game against a first-place team from the previous season, while cellar dwellers will draw an additional contest against another club coming off a last-place finish and so forth.

Furthermore, there remain significant unknowns heading into training camps, which every team will have opened by Tuesday.

► Will Giants RB Saquon Barkley, who’s less than three years removed from offensive rookie of the year honors after leading the league in yards from scrimmage (2,028) in 2018, be sufficiently recovered from last September’s ACL tear to play in Week 1? (The assumption here is yes.)

► Will Texans QB Deshaun Watson, a three-time Pro Bowler who topped the NFL with 4,823 passing yards last year, be under center for Houston in 2021 in the aftermath of a sordid offseason that began with his desire, per multiple reports, to be traded? (The assumption here is he won’t, whether he makes that decision or the NFL does it for him … though given Watson’s on-field heroics in 2020 only led to a 4-12 record, it might not matter all that much regardless.)

► And, of course, how will the story of the 2021 offseason further unfold after reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers skipped the Packers’ entire spring program amid rampant speculation about the 16-year-vet’s motives given Rodgers has opted to offer little clarity into his thinking? (Given Rodgers hasn’t been traded – and Green Bay brass have vowed not to move him – nor has he retired or taken the league’s now-expired COVID-19 opt-out avenue, it seems fair to assume at this point that he’ll be on the field Week 1 at New Orleans.)

There are countless other variables that will define this season – injuries, the assimilation of free agents and key rookies league-wide and possibly even virus vaccination rates among them – but it’s time to share my conclusions after months of looking into the crystal ball.

(A note on methodology: Using the most current information amid a few iterations of this exercise, I simply select winners and losers for all 256 – ahem, all 272 – regular-season games to arrive at my projections. The outcomes typically allow me to apply tiebreakers to determine and seed the 14-team playoff field.)

So, without further ado, let’s invite the annual outrage – which, for what it's worth, is never the goal. Unfortunately, in the zero-sum world of pro sports, a cluster of teams winning 12 games signals a group of teams losing those corresponding dozens. (Numbers in parentheses denote playoff seeding):

AFC EAST

(3) Buffalo Bills (12-5): QB Josh Allen led this team to the AFC title game and was the league’s MVP runner-up in 2020, a year when the division-champion Bills saw their defense and ability to run the ball degrade significantly compared to what they accomplished in those areas in 2019. If Buffalo puts everything together in 2021, the city’s long-awaited Lombardi Trophy might finally show up in Western New York. The Bills must survive their opening six weeks, which include four 2020 playoff teams, but they'll only face one of those after November.

(6) Miami Dolphins (11-6): One win shy of postseason in 2020, they’re banking on QB Tua Tagovailoa to take a significant step after he played efficiently – if perhaps too risk-averse – as a rookie. GM Chris Grier's offseason moves appeared to elevate the talent quotient, particularly in Tagovailoa’s receiving corps (WRs Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller V), though All-Pro CB Xavien Howard’s minicamp holdout is a troubling sign. The Fins are the only team this year that won’t have a bye following a trip to London, but they also only have two road games after Thanksgiving.

New England Patriots (9-8): Bill Belichick followed up his last losing season – in 2000 – with a Super Bowl victory. Little expectation of that kind of turnaround this time, but the Pats have definitely invested copious resources in their bid for a playoff return. Yet continued uncertainty under center could ultimately be crippling in what’s shaping up as a far more competitive division than Belichick and Co. have historically been accustomed to. Still, a hot start could be in the offing – aside from their already ballyhooed matchup with Tom Brady and the champion Bucs in Week 4, the Patriots will only see one other 2020 playoff entrant (New Orleans) over the first nine weeks.

New York Jets (5-12): The splashiest personnel addition was surely QB Zach Wilson, the No. 2 pick of the draft and a man who must prove his eye-popping throws and slim build translate to the pro level after Gang Green gave up on former No. 3 selection Sam Darnold. But the NYJ’s most important move was probably the hiring of head coach Robert Saleh, who’s already transforming the culture of a franchise that now sports the league’s longest playoff drought (10 seasons). That streak is likely to reach 11 years in 2021, but there may at least finally be reason for Jets fans to rekindle hope.

AFC NORTH

(1) Cleveland Browns (13-4): The widespread championship buzz they generated two years ago proved painfully premature. But coming off their first playoff win in more than a quarter century, this team is a legitimate threat to be the Browns’ first-ever Super Bowl entry – especially if QB Baker Mayfield continues trending upward in his fourth season. The 2019 club was torpedoed by a slow start, among other factors, but no excuse for that in 2021 – nine of Cleveland’s first 11 opponents failed to post a winning record in 2020.

(5) Baltimore Ravens (11-6): It’s remarkable to think QB Lamar Jackson has won 81% of his regular-season starts (30-7) and now has a playoff victory under his belt, too. But how will things go if he attempts markedly more than the 26 passes per game he’s averaged over the past two seasons? It’s one of this season’s most compelling questions, the Ravens hoping Jackson’s continued evolution through the air translates to the team reaching the AFC title round (and beyond) for the first time in nine years. Following their Oct. 3 game at Denver, the Ravens won't leave Baltimore for five weeks – prime opportunity to build a cushion.

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-10): Are they more representative of the 2020 AFC North champs who started 11-0, or the team that lost five of its final seven, including a playoff faceplant at home against Cleveland? We should know right out of the gate, Pittsburgh facing three 2020 division winners in the first six weeks of the season, followed by the Browns and Bears. Seems like a lot for 39-year-old QB Ben Roethlisberger to overcome as he tries to adapt behind a reconfigured offensive line.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-11): The spotlight will be on second-year QB Joe Burrow and his comeback from ACL surgery. But a defense that hasn’t ranked better than 26th since 2017 deserves equal scrutiny – especially with the past three MVPs (Rodgers, Jackson, Patrick Mahomes) on the docket. Cincinnati should improve but still seems prone to the narrow defeats that have exemplified coach Zac Taylor’s first two seasons.

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AFC SOUTH

(2) Tennessee Titans (12-5): With the exception of the Bucs, perhaps no team projects as a more prohibitive favorite to win its division. An offense upgraded by the acquisition of WR Julio Jones has understandably garnered the offseason attention, but a defense that will have to deal with the NFC West and its quarterbacks better step up after being less than lackluster last year. The Titans will face one 2020 playoff team over the season's final eight weeks.

Indianapolis Colts (9-8): Plenty of talent permeates a roster that's been good enough to make two playoff trips in the past three seasons – which have all featured different starting quarterbacks. But hardly ideal to initiate new QB1 Carson Wentz’s reboot with the schedule spitting the Seahawks, Rams, Titans, Dolphins and Ravens right out of the chute. That opening gauntlet may not include new LT Eric Fisher, either, as he continues recovering from January’s Achilles injury.

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-13): Last year’s 1-15 record belies the talent on this roster. Integrating rookie QB Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick of the 2021 draft, and coach Urban Meyer as he attempts to calibrate an approach that netted three titles in the college ranks likely amounts to a bumpy – if far more promising – 2021 season. At least this group should be fun to watch again.

Houston Texans (1-16): Watson had his best season statistically in 2020 ... yet this team was abject. You shudder to think how it will go now given the increasingly likely odds he won't play another game for the franchise. Factor in rookie head coach David Culley, who has no pro experience at the coordinator level, and massive roster turnover – most of the new names forgettable – and the outlook isn’t pretty.

AFC WEST

(4) Kansas City Chiefs (12-5): Mahomes mused about going 20-0 last month – and later backed away from it – yet there are plenty of reasons to expect some measure of regression from a team that’s won five consecutive division crowns, reached three straight AFC championship games and appeared in the last two Super Bowls. Last year’s conference champs must navigate an unforgiving schedule, which includes a tough trio of AFC West foes, even as Andy Reid tries to dial in a revamped offensive line and seeks more production from his No. 2 wideout, likely Mecole Hardman. DE Frank Clark’s legal troubles could present another obstacle. However that schedule, which is heavily frontloaded, presents only two 2020 playoff teams after October.

(7) Los Angeles Chargers (11-6): Mixing the Bolts and optimism is often a toxic combination – they’ve zapped me more than once – but one can’t unsee QB Justin Herbert’s boundless potential coming off an offensive rookie of the year performance that wrapped with four consecutive wins. This season commences with a brutal six-week stretch before the bye that includes Washington, the Cowboys, Chiefs, Browns and Ravens. But new coach Brandon Staley is already highly regarded for defensive wizardry that should be augmented by S Derwin James’ return. Don’t be surprised if the Chargers are LA’s best team in 2021.  

Denver Broncos (8-9): A defense fronted by pass rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, who have rarely played together amid their injuries, could be scary. The offense looks relatively loaded, too, the obvious question being at quarterback as Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater vie for starting duties. Beginning in Week 3, the Broncos will only be on the road four times in a 13-week span, a stretch that could determine their legitimacy.

Las Vegas Raiders (8-9): Will QB Derek Carr finally appear in his first postseason game for a team that can put plenty of points on the board – at least 31 in half of last season’s games – and/or, after years of speculation, will 2021 serve as his Silver and Black swan song? After going 2-6 in their new Sin City digs in 2020, at least the Raiders might enjoy some home cooking this year … especially since their opponents will be more susceptible to the temptation of The Strip on Saturday nights this fall.

NFC EAST

(4) Dallas Cowboys (10-7): QB Dak Prescott’s anticipated recovery from a compound leg fracture and dislocation of his ankle will command most of the headlines and those “Hard Knocks” cameras. But if RB Ezekiel Elliott, a battered offensive line and defense that was mauled in 2020 simply revert to recent norms, it’s hard not to envision the Cowboys as clear-cut favorites to win this division – especially since they face eight consecutive teams that missed the playoffs in 2020 following their opening night game in Tampa.

Washington Football Team (8-9): Very feasible the reigning division champions could improve their record in 2021 – they were 7-9 last year – yet miss postseason. The defense should be dominant, but it’s worth wondering if this is essentially a wasted year on the offensive side with 38-year-old journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick on a one-year deal. Still, FitzMagic should have the room for error it often requires given Washington’s final five games are against NFC East teams – a potential golden opportunity to salvage a season if it comes to that.

New York Giants (8-9): Aside from Barkley, few big names for The Big Apple’s bluebloods … which seems to fit coach Joe Judge’s approach just fine given the Giants nearly stole the division in Week 17 last season. But for the team to take the next step – especially if Barkley is well shy of 100% – third-year QB Daniel Jones will likely need to display substantial progress, assisted by big-ticket free agent WR Kenny Golladay and a suspect O-line. The Giants only have three home games after Nov. 7, one apiece against each of their NFC East rivals.

Philadelphia Eagles (3-14): As renowned as second-year QB Jalen Hurts’ reputation for leadership is, it might be nullified by rookie head coach Nick Sirianni’s inexperience … to say nothing of a potentially problematic defense. And with the 49ers, Cowboys, Chiefs and Buccaneers among the first six opponents, attention in Philly could quickly turn to the 2022 draft, when the Eagles are likely to have three first-round selections.

NFC NORTH

(2) Green Bay Packers (12-5): As we await clarity on Rodgers’ future, it's worth noting that a team which has lost consecutive NFC championship games might remain playoff-caliber even if untested QB Jordan Love is forced into the lineup. But that would be little consolation to Pack fans who fully expected Rodgers to add to his ring count – which he could very well do this season – in the decade since he was named Super Bowl 45’s MVP. Could the Browns' Christmas afternoon visit to Lambeau Field be a Super Bowl 56 teaser?

(6) Minnesota Vikings (10-7): An offense that ranked fourth in 2020 could be even better if first-round LT Christian Darrisaw solidifies the O-line in front of QB Kirk Cousins and offensive player of the year candidate Dalvin Cook. However if Mike Zimmer restores his defense – Pro Bowlers Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr return from injuries, while free agent DT Shelton Richardson and CBs Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland join the lineup – then this should be a team that won’t be stuck under the radar for very long. Yet it could get dicey late, the Vikes wrapping the regular season against five consecutive 2020 playoff teams, three of those contests in Cousins' bugaboo prime-time windows.

Chicago Bears (7-10): Everyone in the Windy City is waiting to see how long it will take rookie QB Justin Fields to unseat veteran Andy Dalton. Lost in that anticipation is a defense that’s been steadily deteriorating and will have its third coordinator, first-timer Sean Desai, in four seasons. The Fields factor could mean a wide variance of outcomes, but hovering around .500 once again seems the most likely one.

Detroit Lions (3-14): The philosophical overhaul is intriguing – including the expected re-emphasis of the run game – and new GM Brad Holmes has amassed future draft capital that should spark an about face. But the holes on this roster make you wonder if the win total will rival the amount of kneecaps bitten this season – especially with the September calendar serving up the 49ers, Packers and Ravens.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady  celebrates after beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.

NFC SOUTH

(1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-3): For the first time in the salary-cap era, a reigning Super Bowl champion’s starting lineup returns intact – and that doesn’t include WR Antonio Brown, third-down RB Gio Bernard, TE O.J. Howard, who’s coming off an Achilles tear, and first-round pass rusher Joe Tryon. Throw in established chemistry and Brady’s surgically repaired knee, and this team has the makings of a crew that could be the first to successfully defend its title in 17 years.

Carolina Panthers (8-9): If a healthy Christian McCaffrey can approach his dual 1,000-yard rushing-receiving output from 2019, the pressure on Darnold to immediately deliver on his latent potential becomes far more manageable for a team that lost eight of its 11 games in 2020 by one score. Solid opportunity for a strong start given 11 of Carolina’s first 13 2021 opponents didn’t reach postseason last year.

New Orleans Saints (8-9): They’re 8-1 over the past two seasons without now-retired Drew Brees, Bridgewater (2019) and Taysom Hill (2020) splitting those starts. Yet that gaudy record masks some poor opponents and less-than-glittering offensive performances from New Orleans. Jameis Winston and Hill, who are competing for Brees’ job, have pretty starkly different skill sets and warts. It should help that four of New Orleans’ first five opponents were sub-.500 in 2020, but it will hurt to be without suspended DT David Onyemata.

Atlanta Falcons (5-12): New coach Arthur Smith inherits QB Matt Ryan, who’s still pretty much at the top of his game even at age 36. But how will Smith’s offense work without the services of a runner of Derrick Henry’s caliber or perennial Pro Bowl WR Julio Jones, who joined Henry with Smith’s former employers in Tennessee? Yet Smith may be relying heavily on Ryan and Co. if this pass defense, which ranked last in 2020, remains as shaky as it still appears.  

NFC WEST

(3) San Francisco 49ers (11-6): Given how tightly packed their division appears, playing five games against last-place teams from 2020 should confer quite an advantage to the Niners, who open at Detroit and Philadelphia. And it sure won’t hurt to have TE George Kittle, DE Nick Bosa, RB Raheem Mostert, WR Deebo Samuel and, presumably, QB Jimmy Garoppolo back in the lineup for a team one year removed from a 13-3 season that ended in the Super Bowl. Worth noting, though, that coach Kyle Shanahan is breaking in two new coordinators.

(5) Los Angeles Rams (10-7): Tuesday’s news that RB Cam Akers will miss the season with a torn Achilles puts a major damper on a team that was banking on QB Matthew Stafford’s arrival to more than offset the departure of Staley and four starters from last season’s No. 1 defense. LA will be tested early, four of its first five opponents 2020 playoff outfits.

(7) Seattle Seahawks (9-8): Beware counting out a team that’s missed the playoffs once in the nine seasons since QB Russell Wilson and LB Bobby Wagner were drafted in 2012. But the Seahawks have downshifted from perennial championship contenders to perennial playoff team, perhaps becoming too reliant on veteran imports from programs that haven’t won. More of the same, especially if Wilson’s headspace remains cluttered?

Arizona Cardinals (7-10): Pressure’s on coach Kliff Kingsbury after the Cards experienced major second-half fades (combined 5-11 record) during his first two years. Running the ball better – without being so reliant on QB Kyler Murray – and converting more third downs would theoretically keep this team fresher down the stretch … which includes showdowns with five 2020 playoff teams in the final seven weeks, a group that doesn’t include Dallas. Uh oh.

AFC playoffs

Wild card: (7) Chargers def. (2) Titans; (3) Bills def. (6) Dolphins; (4) Chiefs def. (5) Ravens

Divisional: (4) Chiefs def. (3) Bills; (1) Browns def. (7) Chargers

AFC championship game: (1) Browns def. (4) Chiefs

NFC playoffs

Wild card: (2) Packers def. (7) Seahawks; (3) 49ers def. (6) Vikings; (5) Rams def. (4) Cowboys

Divisional: (3) 49ers def. (2) Packers; (1) Buccaneers def. (5) Rams

NFC championship game: (1) Buccaneers def. (3) 49ers

Super Bowl 56 (Inglewood, California)

Buccaneers def. Browns

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Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.