The 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

With free agency in the rear-view mirror and the 2021 draft all wrapped up, NFL teams can now draw breath and start to reflect on what has unfolded during the offseason.

Ideally, all teams will hope they sit in a better position to challenge than they did a few months back, but the reality is some are just starting from further back than others.

When it comes to Super Bowl challengers, undoubtedly the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs remain strong favourites to get back to the big game. The Bucs have got the band back together after hoisting aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy on home turf, while the Chiefs have responded to a harrowing loss by rebuilding the offensive line in front of Patrick Mahomes.

But what about the chasing pack? Stats Perform picks out some of the leading contenders for glory while reflecting on what has happened since they last played.

Buffalo Bills

An appearance in the AFC Championship Game inspired by the improved play of quarterback Josh Allen left Buffalo rightly believing they needed minor tweaks, rather than dramatic alterations, to challenge once again in 2021. They kept the offensive line together, then added depth at a key area in the draft when selecting Spencer Brown in round three.

However, the Bills – who ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5) last term but were a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62) – used first and second-round selections to help their defense, with Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr firming up a pass rush that tied 15th for sacks. Add in Emmanuel Sanders to the receiving group and Buffalo appears to be in rude health as they aim to go one better than last season.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are swinging for the fences as they bid to get back to the Super Bowl. Jared Goff was the starter when they lost to the New England Patriots in February 2019, but his time with the franchise is over. The blockbuster deal to get Matthew Stafford from Detroit has ramped up the pressure to get results on the field – and not just in the regular season either.

Leonard Floyd remained thanks to a bumper contract, but John Johnson and Troy Hill are gone from the secondary. They will continue to lean heavily on Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to lead a defense that allowed the fewest passing yards per play (5.08) and the third-least rushing yards per play (3.76). While trades have seen the Rams become accustomed to watching on as teams are on the clock in round one, it was notable they added three wide receivers with their picks as they aim for a fifth successive winning season under head coach Sean McVay.

San Francisco 49ers

Yes, a team who finished the 2020 regular season with a 6-10 record should be considered as genuine contenders. The 49ers went so close to Super Bowl glory 15 months ago, while a roster ravaged by injuries last season will hope for better fortune when it comes to keeping key personnel healthy. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has jetted off to New York, but Nick Bosa should be back.

In truth, it will be the offense that defines San Francisco's chances. Jimmy Garoppolo failed to inspire in his limited appearances, throwing seven touchdowns to five interceptions, so getting a quarterback in the draft – even if trading up to number three came at a high cost – made sense. Trey Lance was their choice, a high-upside selection who showed plenty of promise in 19 games for North Dakota State. The run game remains pivotal, though, which explains why they splashed out to make sure Trent Williams and Kyle Juszczyk stuck around.

Cleveland Browns

Having made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Browns knocked out divisional rivals Pittsburgh and then came close to upsetting Kansas City on the road. The defense was bolstered up front with the signings of Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson. However, having given up 31 passing touchdowns, the secondary has rightly been the focus. After snapping up former Rams duo Johnson and Hill, Cleveland selected cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first two rounds of the draft.

Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski built the offense around the rushing tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt – the team averaged 4.8 yards per rush – easing the pressure on Baker Mayfield to move the sticks. Still, he ranked sixth in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts, showing teams cannot fill the box and focus solely on stopping the run. If they can get out of a highly competitive AFC North again, the Browns will believe they can build on a Divisional Round appearance.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens' hopes will once again rest with Lamar Jackson, their dual-threat quarterback who is on course for a significant pay rise when an agreement is reached over a long-term extension. His ability to run helped Baltimore finish first in rushing yards per play with 5.53, while the passing game has a little extra help now after receiver Rashod Bateman was taken with the 27th pick. Still, there was no flashy free-agency signing at the position, despite links with JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton. Kevin Zeitler did pen a deal, securing an experienced guard to bolster the offensive line.

Defensively, Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue have moved on to the Patriots and Raiders respectively, though the Ravens have a reputation for building a pass rush no matter who is on the roster. Tyus Bowser can expect an increased role, plus outside linebacker Odafe Oweh was chosen with the late first-round pick acquired in the trade that sent offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr to the Chiefs.

Honourable mentions

The Green Bay Packers would have made the list were it not for the uncertainty surrounding the future of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. For all their quarterback's undoubted qualities on the field, they have not made a Super Bowl in 11 years. And what is going on in Seattle too? Rumours relating to Russell Wilson's future have dominated the offseason for the Seahawks.

The Indianapolis Colts will hope they can get the best out of signal-caller Carson Wentz and the Pittsburgh Steelers seem set for one last ride with Ben Roethlisberger. As for a trendy pick who missed out on the playoffs last season, look no further than the Los Angeles Chargers, complete with a revamped offensive line to help keep QB Justin Herbert safe.

Josh Allen will be under contract with the Buffalo Bills through 2022 after the team exercised their fifth-year option.

The quarterback was drafted by the Bills in 2018 and has since established himself as one of the NFL's outstanding dual-threats.

Allen has thrown for 9,707 yards, 67 touchdowns and 31 interceptions across 44 games and 43 starts, although the bulk of his yards (4,544) and scores (37) came last season.

The former seventh overall pick, who also has 25 career rushing TDs, led Buffalo to the AFC Championship Game in 2020 where they were beaten by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Allen's completion percentage of 72.8 ranked fourth in the league last year, while he led the NFL at 80.2 when throwing without pressure.

The option in his rookie deal would see Allen earn around $23million in 2022 before becoming an unrestricted free agent – a situation the franchise will be desperate to avoid.

The Bills have also agreed to pay middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, another 2018 first-round selection.

Edmunds is set for $12.7m in 2022, although Buffalo will be expected to negotiate a contract extension before that option kicks in.

The Bills traded up six places to take Edmunds in 2018 after he had 10.0 sacks across his final two college seasons with Virginia Tech.

Although Edmunds has been a Pro Bowl selection in each of the past two years, he has contributed to a defense that has struggled to disrupt opposing passers.

Edmunds only successfully pressured QBs on 7.7 per cent of pass rush attempts last season – the fourth-worst pressure rate among linebackers with 10 or more attempts – and Buffalo's failure to get to grips with Patrick Mahomes led to their playoff exit.

The team spent their first and second-round 2021 draft picks on edge rushers Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr.

The NFL Draft looms large on the horizon as rosters continue to take shape ahead of the 2021 season.

Some big offseason moves have already threatened to alter the landscape of the league, even boosting the championship hopes of teams who missed out on the playoffs in 2020.

Most notably, the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins will each feel they won a trade that saw the number three overall pick sent to the NFC West team in exchange for assets including multiple future first-rounders.

The Niners will get a look at one of the top quarterbacks in an exciting class as they aim to challenge again following an injury ravaged campaign, while the Dolphins can now surround starter Tua Tagovailoa with talent in year two and beyond.

But what of the teams who were already Super Bowl contenders?

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers reached the NFC Championship Game and the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills advanced in the AFC, pre-game predictions could scarcely separate the four.

It was the Bucs who ultimately prevailed, progressing past Green Bay before beating the Chiefs at Super Bowl LV, but their rivals will expect to be in the mix again.

Although chaos higher up in the draft could see plans quickly go out the window, we assess where the Bucs, Packers, Chiefs and Bills might be looking next week - with the help of Stats Perform data.
 

Green Bay Packers

All four of these teams will have interesting options in the first round as the early rush for quarterbacks leaves great depth at several other positions across the board. But the Packers, picking 29th, would be wise to think about how they might help Aaron Rodgers.

The veteran QB was understandably surprised last year when, rather than recruiting help, Green Bay drafted another passer in the first round. Jordan Love did not take a single snap all season long.

Packers wide receiver Davante Adams led the league in receiving touchdowns (18) and ranked fourth for targets (149), joint-second for catches (115) and joint-fifth for receiving yards (1,374), despite playing only 14 games. However, Rodgers clearly lacked a second WR option, with tight end Robert Tonyan's 11 TDs coming on just 59 targets.

There should be no shortage of prospects available to Green Bay, with Elijah Moore - ranked first in the FBS with 149.1 yards per game for Ole Miss - a good fit in the slot.

Yet the team have not selected a receiver in the first round since before Rodgers was drafted, while Adams, in 2014, was the last WR taken higher than the fourth round.

Defensive reinforcements may be more likely over the first two days of the draft. A linebacker like Zaven Collins - four interceptions last season for Tulsa - or a cornerback such as Caleb Farley - falling following back surgery - could be called in the first round, with a later punt on a potential WR project following.
 

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo's needs are two-fold as they aim to give QB Josh Allen the platform to contend with Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady again.

The Bills ranked fourth in the NFL in 2020 for yards per attempt but 20th for rushing average (4.19). Allen contributed 421 of their 1,723 total rushing yards and half of their 16 rushing TDs.

Neither Devin Singletary (156 carries for 687 yards and two TDs) nor Zack Moss (112 carries for 481 yards and four TDs) look capable of being a game-changer on the ground, while the best running backs in the class may well still be on the board at number 30.

Alabama's Najee Harris, who led the FBS with 26 rushing scores, is an obvious standout.

Yet Buffalo's issues against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game came as they failed to disrupt Mahomes, who was sacked only once and threw three TDs and no interceptions.

The Bills were in the middle of the pack for sacks (38, tied 15th) and hurries (163, 17th) and could use someone on the edge, particularly with Jerry Hughes - the man who sacked Mahomes - turning 33 in August.
 

Kansas City Chiefs

If the playoffs made the shortcomings for Buffalo clear, Kansas City's flaws were even more blatant. The best QB in football was helpless in the Super Bowl.

Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, the Chiefs' starting tackles, missed the big game through injury and Mahomes was sacked three times, throwing two picks and no TDs. The pair have each since been released, too, increasing the team's need at the position.

Arrivals Joe Thuney, who allowed 0.5 sacks last season, and Kyle Long, back out of retirement, are not best suited to playing outside. Kansas City would ideally find both a right and left tackle in this draft.

They should have no shortage of options, with a number of prospects mooted as potential picks. Teven Jenkins, out of Oklahoma State, can play either side and would be a popular signing.
 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs are in a truly unenviable position in that they have no positions of major need.

Some defensive end depth would be nice, but this unit pressured Mahomes into submission. The team ranked second for both hurries (182) and knockdowns (115). Linebacker Shaquil Barrett alone had 13 Super Bowl pressures.

Or how about a receiver to deliver the late-season impact provided by Antonio Brown? He had only four starts yet scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl triumph. Of course, he could also still return.

The rest of the title-winning roster from last year is back, meaning Tampa Bay remain in 'win now' mode and can simply look to pick up the best player left on the board at pick 32.

That might mean a RB like Harris, while the Bucs would have little to lose in taking a flier on Farley, despite his fitness concerns, if he falls to them.

The Buffalo Bills will look back on the 2020 season as one in which the 2018 gamble they took on Josh Allen began paying the dividends they expected.

After signs of improvement in 2019, one of the most volatile quarterbacks in the NFL took a gigantic third-year leap, the Bills' faith in his remarkable athletic gifts paying off as he blossomed into one of the most prolific and devastating signal-callers in the league.

But Allen's jump to the league's elite at the game's most important position was still not enough to propel the Bills to their first Super Bowl title.

The Bills, like so many teams before them, were undone by the brilliance of the Kansas City Chiefs, losing 38-24 at Arrowhead Stadium as their quest for the Lombardi Trophy ended in an AFC Championship Game defeat.

What do the Bills need to do to finally get over the hump in 2021? We look at the key Stats Perform data from the 2020 campaign and their offseason moves to this point to determine what Buffalo's next steps should be ahead of another run at a maiden title.

Offense

The impact of Allen's development on Buffalo's offense is illustrated by the efficiency the Bills demonstrated in 2020.

Having finished 22nd in yards per play in 2019 with an average of 5.19, they improved to sixth with a jump to 6.13.

They were fourth in yards per passing play (7.42), while only the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers put up more touchdowns through the air than Buffalo's 40.

Buffalo's surge as a passing attack was fuelled by a huge uptick in accuracy from Allen.

Going into the 2020 season, Allen's highest completion percentage in his NFL career was 58.8, set in 2019.

Last year, Allen completed 69.2 per cent of his pass attempts, trailing only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson.

He was sixth in the league in touchdown to interception ratio, throwing 37 scores to 10 picks, and was fourth in completions of 20 yards or more with 62.

His passer rating of 107.4 on pass attempts of 21 air yards or more was ninth among quarterbacks to have at least 25 such attempts, with Allen's success on deep balls aided by the trade acquisition of Stefon Diggs.

Diggs led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards after arriving from the Minnesota Vikings, becoming Allen's go-to target as he caught 73 receptions for a first down, a tally bettered by only Travis Kelce (79) and DeAndre Hopkins (75).

What the Bills offense lacked was balance. The running game struggled to get going throughout the year, with Buffalo finishing the year ranked 20th in yards per rush with 4.19.

Devin Singletary's 18 rushes for negative yards was the joint-ninth-highest number in the league, and while the Bills were 13th with 53 rushes of 10 yards or more, 16 of those came from Allen, with rookie third-round pick Zack Moss contributing only 12.

The Bills would have been in the league's bottom five in that category if not for Allen's contributions. While the emphasis was more on what their dual-threat signal-caller can do with his arm in 2020, he also did his best to elevate a running game that will hope to be much more efficient in 2021.

Defense

The Bills were far from the first team to fail to stop the Chiefs and they will not be the last.

But the porous nature of their defensive performance was reflective of a mediocre year on that side of the ball for Buffalo.

The Bills ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5). They were ninth against the pass (6.1) but a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62).

Opponents ran successful plays against the Bills' defense 51.8 per cent of the time, putting them 22nd in the NFL, while Buffalo were middle of the road (15th) in terms of opponent scoring efficiency, giving up either a field goal or a touchdown on 67 of 170 opponent drives.

Tied for 15th in sacks with 38, the Bills were underwhelming in converting their pressures. They had 163 quarterback hurries (17th) and 90 knockdowns (tied for 13th), indicating a need to find a pass rusher who can consistently finish his pass rushes in the offseason.

Where the Bills did excel was in taking the ball away. Their 26 turnovers ranked tied for third while they scored 90 points off takeaways, good for seventh in the NFL.

Cornerback Tre'Davious White led the way for Buffalo with five of those takeaways, three of which were interceptions, in another stellar season for the two-time Pro Bowler.

Buffalo possess talent at every level of the defense and, even though the Bills fell short at Arrowhead Stadium, there is plenty of reason to believe the addition of a game-changer up front can spark an upturn in defensive fortunes and put them over the top in 2021.

Offseason

The Bills have quietly enjoyed a productive and impressive offseason. Matt Milano signed a four-year, $41.5million contract that will likely look a bargain if and when Fred Warner signs his extension with the San Francisco 49ers later in the year.

Wide receiver John Brown and tight end Tyler Kroft both departed in free agency but were replaced by Emmanuel Sanders and Jacob Hollister respectively. 

Sanders should provide Allen with a dependable third-down option, as he moved the chains on 61.1 per cent of his third-down targets for the New Orleans Saints last year, putting him 10th among receivers with at least 10 such targets.

Buffalo also landed a capable backup for Allen at a palatable price, former second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky arriving on a one-year deal worth $2.5m.

Yet they head into the draft still with obvious needs to address.

The Bills brought back cornerback Levi Wallace on a one-year deal. However, he has been burnt for eight touchdowns over the last two seasons, meaning Buffalo could certainly benefit from an infusion of competition at the starting spot across from White.

However, secondary play is not what limited the ceiling of the Bills' defense in 2020. A lack of a dominant presence at edge rusher is what held Leslie Frazier's group back last year, and adding one should be their priority with the 30th pick in the first round.

Rob Gronkowski confirmed he held talks with rival teams in free agency before committing to Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for another year.

Five-time Pro Bowler Gronkowski returned to the NFL last season, a year on from his retirement with the New England Patriots.

The tight end was traded to the Bucs, where he joined fellow Pats great Tom Brady for a successful title challenge.

According to reports, Gronkowski agreed to return to Tampa on the same terms as in 2020, signing a one-year, $10million pact.

But the four-time champion had earlier told The Ringer he wanted "just to see what's out there" in free agency.

As his new deal was formally announced on Monday, Gronkowski met the media and was asked about speculation he discussed a potential move to the Buffalo Bills.

"There was a little extent to that," said Gronkowski, who started all 20 regular season and playoff games last year and was targeted 91 times for 53 catches, 733 yards and nine touchdowns.

"I was a free agent, so as a free agent, you're allowed to talk to other teams. There were a couple of other teams, also.

"But just overall I wanted to be back with the Buccaneers organisation. Just the set-up here is just unbelievable. Just the chemistry that I've built over the last season is just fantastic.

"So just overall I wanted to come back to the Buccaneers.

"You know, it's football, you never know how things are going to play out. So it's just good to listen to what else is out there, and there was something to a little extent.

"I knew I wanted to be here."

The Bills were 13-3 last season, two wins better off than the Bucs, but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.

The Chiefs were subsequently blown away by Tampa, as Gronkowski scored two touchdowns in a dominant 31-9 win.

Of his 14 postseason scores - all of which have come from Brady passes, a playoff record - five have now come in Super Bowls.

Bucs GM Jason Licht said in a statement on Monday: "In addition to his contributions on the field, Gronk has quickly become one of the most beloved guys in our locker room.

"His ability to perform at a championship-calibre level week after week, while also uplifting everyone around him, makes him an invaluable presence in our building.

"Rob's accomplishments speak for themselves and make him one of the greatest to ever play the game at his position.

"We are thrilled to have him back with us as we pursue another title in Tampa."

Tampa have worked hard to reassemble their successful 2020 team.

Brady signed an extension, keeping him with the Bucs through 2022, while Chris Godwin was franchise-tagged and Lavonte David signed a new deal ahead of free agency.

Once the negotiating period began, Shaquil Barrett and Gronkowski also came back.

The Buffalo Bills have announced the signing of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on a one-year deal.  

Trubisky arrives in Buffalo after four years with the Chicago Bears, who selected him with the second overall pick in the 2017 draft.  

The 26-year-old was the first quarterback taken that year, the Bears trading up one spot to grab Trubisky ahead of fellow prospects Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, who went 10th and 12th respectively.  

His rookie season saw him finish with a 4-8 record after claiming the starting role from Mike Glennon, while the following year he made the Pro Bowl after Chicago won the AFC North, though they lost in the Wild Card round to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

However, Trubisky struggled to build on a campaign where he threw for a career-high 3,223 yards, with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Last season he was benched in Week 3 in favour of Nick Foles, only to reclaim the job by Week 12.

Overall, Trubisky started in nine games in 2020, completing 199 of his 297 pass attempts for 2,055 yards. He had a completion percentage of 67 per cent as he threw for 16 scores and eight interceptions. 

The move to the Bills will see him serve as back-up to starter Josh Allen, who steered the franchise to the AFC Championship Game in his third season in the league. 

The Buffalo Bills have re-signed star linebacker Matt Milano as they eye another run at the Super Bowl, the NFL team announced on Thursday.

There were concerns the Bills could lose Milano in free agency due to cap pressure following Buffalo's AFC Championship Game appearance last season.

But Milano has signed a four-year contract extension reportedly worth $44million in Buffalo.

Milano missed six games in 2020 as the Bills eventually fell to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC title decider.

The 26-year-old has started 39 of 55 games with Buffalo and produced 265 tackles, 6.0 sacks and five interceptions in his career.

Milano – drafted by Buffalo in 2017 – tallied 100 tackles in the 2019 regular season, joining Tremaine Edmunds and Jordan Poyer as the only Bills with 100-plus tackles.

He finished the 2018 campaign as the only player in the NFL with 75-plus tackles, three-plus interceptions and three-plus fumble recoveries.

Josh Allen "didn't perform well enough" for the Buffalo Bills as they missed out on a place in the Super Bowl with a 38-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.

Bills quarterback Allen completed 28 of 48 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC Championship Game, while he rushed for 88 yards on seven carries.

However, an interception at the start of the fourth quarter preceded a Kansas City touchdown on the next drive to put the Chiefs out of sight.

Allen felt he forced things at times and was frustrated the Bills twice settled for field goals despite being within the Chiefs' 10-yard line.

"We didn't execute how we should've. I didn't perform well enough for this team. You're going against the reigning Super Bowl champs, who were 15-1, the number one seed at Arrowhead, if you're not going to have your A game, you're not going to win the game. That's what it was," he said.

"A couple of decisions early on, trying to press in the second half, I got things going a little bit better, but our red zone efficiency settled for field goals and you've got to score touchdowns against these guys. That's basically it.

"In the first half, I thought we moved the ball well, or well enough. We got down into the red zone and couldn't get the ball into the endzone.

"We got down there, threw an interception, a couple of bad decisions on my part. Just the communication aspect of it too. They did a good job of being able to check out their blitzes, not really allow us any time to get back to what we were originally going to run.

"Again, it comes down to decision making and putting the ball where it needed to be and I didn't do that well enough tonight."

Asked if he was pushing to go for touchdowns on the fourth downs inside the Chief's 10-yard line, he added: "I mean, that's the coach's decision. We had three downs to get in there prior and we didn't do our job.

"Like I said, lack of communication, lack of execution down there and it falls on our shoulders."

Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott admitted with the benefit of hindsight that he might have tried his luck in one of those instances.

"I thought about it in both occasions really. Maybe if I had to do it all over again, I would have maybe went for one of them," he said.

"The one before the half for sure. I wanted to get points. We were having trouble coming up with points and I wanted to have something to show for it going into the half, especially knowing they were getting the ball after half.

"I will look back at that and I will re-evaluate, especially the one after the half there. As a team, we will learn from this experience."

There were several confrontations towards the end of the game, with Allen sparking one by throwing the ball at the head of Alex Okafor.

Allen regretted letting his emotions get to him but feels confident Buffalo will not have to experience another 27-year wait to reach this stage again.

"It's going to fuel us, I have no doubt in my mind that we will be back. This is a team that fought hard to the end, a team that loves each other," he said.

"We're still young and we're only going to get better. That's one thing I got from this. We're close."

Patrick Mahomes going up against Tom Brady is a prospect that should lead to a "heck of a football game" at Super Bowl LV, says Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid.

The legendary Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the showpiece in his first season with the team as they overcame the Green Bay Packers 31-26 in the NFC Championship Game.

Later on Sunday, superstar quarterback Mahomes guided the Chiefs to a second consecutive Super Bowl in a 38-24 triumph over the Buffalo Bills.

The thought of Brady, considered by many as the greatest QB of all time after winning six rings with New England Patriots, going up against Mahomes is an exciting one, not least for Chiefs coach Reid.

"Yeah, it seems like we've had a couple of those [Mahomes v Brady games] and every one of them is tremendous," Reid told reporters.

"I wouldn't expect this to be different, they got a tremendous team there. Those two have a lot of respect for each other, I remember when Tom came into the locker room after the championship game and spoke to Patrick, and Patrick responded like any young man would respond to the GOAT.

"We look forward to the opportunity to play, I know Pat does with Tom and I'm sure likewise Tom does with Pat. It should be a heck of a football game."

Mahomes completed 29 of 38 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns against the Bills and joined Kurt Warner, Brady and Russell Wilson as the only quarterbacks to reach the Super Bowl twice in their first four NFL seasons.

If the Chiefs are victorious, Mahomes will join Brady as the only QBs to win it twice in that span.

Asked what such achievements say about Mahomes, Reid replied: "You guys have seen him grow right in front of you.

"You're seeing the steps he's taking. I sit there, and I'm an old guy who's seen a lot of pretty good quarterbacks, and I sit there and think this guy seems to amaze me a little bit more every game.

"I'm proud of the way he handles it most of all. You guys aren't writing stories about this guy has a big head or this and that.

"He's not showing people up. No, he's about the team, he's all in, he works his tail off, he does it the right way, which is important for the longevity of his career and for the success of the Kansas City Chiefs and now for the Super Bowl."

Mahomes entered the game on the back of suffering a concussion in the Divisional Round win over the Cleveland Browns, and with question marks over a nasty-looking toe injury.

Reid added: "Listen, he came out and he practiced and did a great job all week.

"It was a limited basis early with the protocol he had to deal with, he kept positive with it, stayed positive with every part whether that was with the toe or head.

"I thought he and the trainers had a great plan for his toe. It was an amazing looking thing after the last game and how black and blue it was."

Reid said the magnitude of reaching back-to-back Super Bowls had not quite sunk in yet.

"I will [reflect] when I get about two seconds to sit down, I'm gonna sit there and I'm gonna go 'Dog darn, how about that?'" Reid added.

"But we got some work we gotta get done. We understand that, the guys understand that."

Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes is excited about the opportunity to face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV.

The Chiefs and Buccaneers secured their places in the NFL showpiece with wins over the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers respectively on Sunday.

The battle between quarterbacks Mahomes and Brady is set to be must-watch at Raymond James Stadium on February 7.

And Mahomes, who led the Chiefs to the title last year in an MVP performance, is excited to face Brady with the 43-year-old playing his 10th Super Bowl.

"The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl," Mahomes told a news conference.

"Being able to go up against one of the greatest, if not the greatest, quarterback of all-time in his 150th Super Bowl, I mean, it's going to be a great experience for me.

"To go out there and have a chance to repeat and get to do it against the best, I mean it's something special and I'm excited for the opportunity."

Mahomes went into the AFC Championship Game on the back of a concussion suffered last week and with question marks over a suspected toe injury.

But he completed 29 of 38 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the 38-24 win over the Bills.

Mahomes joined Kurt Warner, Brady and Russell Wilson as the only quarterbacks to reach the Super Bowl twice in their first four NFL seasons.

If the Chiefs are victorious, Mahomes will join Brady as the only QBs to win it twice in that span.

Despite the concerns over his health, Mahomes insisted he felt fit and ready to go ahead of facing the Bills.

"I felt good from the warmups on. We did a good job as far as rehabbing and getting myself ready to go," he said.

"I felt like I was myself out there and we were able to go out there and score points and find a way to win against a really good football team."

Patrick Mahomes and reigning champions the Kansas City Chiefs will face Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV after beating the Buffalo Bills 38-24.

The Chiefs reached the showpiece for the second straight season after an impressive performance at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

Mahomes – who entered concussion protocol last week before proving his fitness – completed 29 of 38 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns as Tyreek Hill (172 receiving yards) and Travis Kelce (118 and two TDs) both had big games.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen was 28 of 48 for 287 yards and two touchdowns, while he rushed for 88 yards, but he was intercepted once and sacked four times.

Allen was also unable to get much going with Stefon Diggs, who finished with just 77 yards on six receptions.

The Bills made the perfect start, Allen combining with Dawson Knox on a short pass after Mecole Hardman fumbled a punt as Buffalo took a 9-0 lead.

Hardman quickly redeemed himself after a three-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes before his 50-yard run put the Chiefs in position, Darrel Williams rushing over to give them the lead.

Kansas City capitalised on their period of dominance as Clyde Edwards-Helaire strolled in to complete a nine-play, 77-yard drive as the Chiefs took a 21-12 advantage into half-time.

After the teams traded field goals, the Chiefs extended their lead, Mahomes delivering an underhand TD pass to Kelce after a mesmerising run from Hill set the hosts up.

Allen was intercepted by Rashad Fenton early in the fourth quarter and the Chiefs stretched their lead when Mahomes connected with a wide open Kelce for another TD.

Allen found Isaiah McKenzie for a score for Buffalo as the Bills continued to push, but it was far too late.

 

Turning point – Chiefs turn Hardman's game around

Hardman's fumble cost the Chiefs early, but Kansas City helped turn the wide receiver's game around.

Mahomes connected with him for a touchdown and Hardman also reeled off a 50-yard run, quickly redeeming himself for the early error as the Chiefs took the lead and restored the 22-year-old's confidence.

Kelce and Hill dominate

Kelce and Hill combined for 290 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a dominant performance as reigning Super Bowl MVP Mahomes also starred.

With 13, Kelce set the record for most receptions in a conference championship game in the Super Bowl era, surpassing Michael Irvin (1994), as per NFL Research.

Kelce also surpassed Rob Gronkowski (1,585 in 2011) for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single season in NFL history.

What's next?

The Chiefs will head to the Super Bowl again. Led by Mahomes, they face a Buccaneers side who are the first in NFL history to play a Super Bowl at home.

For Buffalo, meanwhile, a promising season came to an end, but they are sure to be in contention again moving forward.

The matchup for Super Bowl LV will be known by the end of this weekend as the two Conference Championships are decided.

Probably the strangest season in NFL history has delivered a semi-final line-up to savour.

There is a matchup between two future Hall of Famers in Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers and the Packers face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.

The AFC Championship Game features two signal-callers well on their way to securing Hall of Fame status, with Patrick Mahomes recovering from a concussion to lead the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.

Mahomes being available means the Chiefs remain the favourites to retain the trophy, but here Stats Perform's team of NFL writers make their picks as to who will emerge from the final four and prevail at Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

Ben Spratt - CHIEFS TO CONQUER ALL ONCE MORE

With Mahomes, the best quarterback in football, fit to play, it seems foolish to back against the Chiefs.

The fourth-year superstar has the best career passer rating in playoff history (106.6), with his only two postseason interceptions coming in last year's Super Bowl when he subsequently led Kansas City to victory in a record-equalling 21-point fourth quarter.

And yet this team is not just about Mahomes, as their QB has the luxury of targeting tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who ranked second and eighth for receiving yards this season.

Even when Mahomes was out against the Cleveland Browns, the Chiefs had a coach in Andy Reid ready to make the big calls to guide them through.

Chris Myson - SEVENTH HEAVEN FOR BRADY

The meeting of the minds between Bruce Arians and Brady was never going to be plain sailing in their first season, as two demoralising regular-season division losses to the New Orleans Saints showed.

But the Buccaneers have gradually worked through their problems and are now riding a five-game winning streak, having seen off the Washington Football Team by eight points and the Saints by 10 in the postseason.

At 43, Brady exceeded expectations in his first year in Arians' system, with 40 passing touchdowns being the second-best tally of his storied career, only the record-breaking 50 he got in 2007 topping that.

It has historically proven wise not to bet against Brady in the playoffs, a case strengthened with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and many more weapons representing the best supporting cast he has had in years.

Rob Lancaster - WE BILL-IEVE!

The Bills believe again. A franchise that has suffered more than their fair share of Super Bowl heartache in the past, losing four straight in the early 1990s, has high hopes that this could finally be their year.

Allen holds the key for Buffalo; he finished in the top five for quarterbacks in terms of passing yards, touchdowns thrown and yards per attempt in the regular season.

With his team rather abandoning the run in the playoffs – they posted a season-low 32 yards on the ground in the Divisional Round triumph over the Baltimore Ravens – the 24-year-old has the chance to excel against elite competition and, by lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, write his name into Buffalo folklore.

Nicholas McGee - BACK THE PACK

In last year's NFC Championship game, the Green Bay Packers were crushed by a San Francisco 49ers team that ran them over on offense and used their defense to swarm Aaron Rodgers and condemn him to another chastening playoff loss. 

The Packers were seen as a regression candidate in 2020, but those who expected them to take a step back perhaps underestimated how much of an achievement it was for them to reach this stage last season in Rodgers' first year in Matt LaFleur's offense.

His second year in the scheme, built around the same principles that form the basis of Kyle Shanahan's 49ers attack, has seen Rodgers take an offense widely regarded as the most creative in the game to new heights.

A near-lock for the MVP award, Rodgers completed 70.7 per cent of his passes in the regular season for 4,299 yards, an incredible 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Behind only Deshaun Watson and Allen with a completion percentage over expectation of 4.4, according to NextGen Stats, Rodgers led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt, his average of 8.89 well clear of Mahomes (8.33) in second. 

Possessing a near-telepathic connection with Davante Adams, Rodgers is playing at a level where he can outduel Brady, Allen or Mahomes, while the Packers defense is rounding into the kind of form where Green Bay can do what San Francisco couldn't last year, and make enough plays to stop the Chiefs from lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

Patrick Mahomes is out of the NFL's concussion protocol, clearing the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback to play in Sunday's AFC Championship Game with the Buffalo Bills. 

Mahomes' status had been in doubt since he suffered a concussion in the third quarter of the Chiefs' dramatic 22-17 Divisional Round win over the Cleveland Browns. 

The Chiefs were able to cling on for victory over the underdog Browns with Chad Henne at quarterback. 

However, they will not have to cope for an entire game with backup Henne under center, Mahomes telling reporters on Friday that he was cleared to play.

"Luckily enough, I haven't had any symptoms and I'm able to play," Mahomes said. "I'll be able to go out there and be myself." 

On a toe injury from which he has also been suffering, he added: "Feeling a lot better. The next day was very sore, every day from then has gotten a lot better. It wasn't as bad as it looked and it felt that day and the day after." 

The 2018 MVP and Super Bowl MVP in the Chiefs' 31-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers in last season's showpiece, Mahomes is looking to guide the Chiefs to back-to-back Super Bowls for the first time in franchise history. 

Should he lead the Chiefs to a win over the Bills, Kansas City will face either the Green Bay Packers or Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV on February 7.

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