NFL

NFL 2021: Packers & Rams pose threat but Bucs clear NFC standouts

By Sports Desk September 09, 2021

The consensus in recent years has become that the very best in the NFL predominantly reside in the AFC. It is a claim that is difficult to argue, given the Kansas City Chiefs' emergence as the most explosive team in the league, the rise of the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and the consistency of the Baltimore Ravens with their dynamic running game.

Yet, in terms of sheer depth, the NFC might have the edge. It may be tough to look beyond the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and too many find teams that can legitimately hope to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy come February, but this is a conference swimming with playoff calibre competitors.

That plethora of contenders will all be hoping to topple Tom Brady and the Buccaneers after they crushed the Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV to claim their second title in franchise history.

The Bucs are still the unquestioned class of the conference, but who are teams with the best shot of usurping them and playing in Super Bowl LVI in February? Stats Perform attempts to answer that question as we preview the NFC ahead of Tampa Bay's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Favourites

With Brady's arm seemingly somehow getting stronger in his mid-40s – he averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the fourth-most in the NFL, in 2020 – and the Bucs doing an excellent job of retaining a host of free agents that formed the core of their championship roster, Tampa Bay stand as the clear favourites to be the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

Yet it is important to remember the Green Bay Packers and MVP Aaron Rodgers were perhaps just a fourth-down conversion in the red zone away from knocking off Brady and the Bucs in last year's NFC title game. Save for departed center Corey Linsley and injured left tackle David Bakhtiari – not insignificant absentees – Rodgers will have predominantly the same supporting cast as he had last year, including Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) last term.

The pressure is on defense that forced only 72 negative plays (tied 26th) last term to provide assistance reflective of the talent the Packers have on that side of the ball.

Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams have rarely had to worry about getting impactful defensive contributions. Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is coming off a year that saw him post a monstrous pressure rate of 28.2 per cent while Jalen Ramsey is still one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league.

If the defense can continue to thrive without coordinator Brandon Staley – who will coach in the same stadium but as the head man with the Chargers – and the marriage of new quarterback Matthew Stafford and innovative play-caller McVay proves successful, the Rams could be the team that defies Brady having failed to do so against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

In the mix

The San Francisco 49ers were seven minutes away from ending the 2019 season with triumph in Super Bowl LIV, only to be undone by a stunning late barrage from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Their hopes of going one better were decimated by a relentless wave of injuries, however, the Niners are healthy going into this season and offer one of the deepest rosters in the NFL along with the league's most compelling quarterback situation.

It is unclear when rookie third overall pick Trey Lance – an exciting dual-threat quarterback who tallied 42 total touchdowns and no interceptions in his only full season of college football at North Dakota State – will be ready to take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet, as long as one of their quarterbacks can elevate a talented cast of skill-position players and an extremely well-stocked defense that gets edge rusher Nick Bosa – 28.3 per cent pressure rate in 2019 – back from a torn ACL can stay in the league's top 10, San Francisco will be a threat.

The Niners do have the inconvenience of being in the same division as the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach Pete Carroll may be starting to feel the pressure to deliver with his team having consistently reached the playoffs but failed to go beyond the Divisional Round since their Super Bowl loss at the end of 2014 season.

Seattle do not possess a roster as well-rounded as that of the Niners, yet quarterback Russell Wilson is one who can keep them in any game. Wilson, and therefore the Seahawks, cannot be counted out.

The Dallas Cowboys are more of a longshot and their defense is one ill-prepared to go deep into the postseason. Still, in a league where offense is king, the Cowboys have the attack – provided Dak Prescott is healthy – to outduel opponents having put up 509.5 net yards per game before their quarterback's 2020 season was ended by injury in Week 5.

Sleeper team to watch – Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons appear to be a franchise resisting the reality staring them in the face. Having replaced Dan Quinn with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Falcons had the chance to get a jump-start on a rebuild by taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the draft as the successor to the 36-year-old Matt Ryan.

Instead, the Falcons settled on Florida's stud tight end Kyle Pitts, a move more in keeping with a team ready to win now. With Pitts, who won his matchup with a defender on 70.1 per cent of targets in 2020, joining Ryan and an already talented cast of pass-catchers, the Falcons arguably have an offense that can score at a rate to keep them in the mix.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is one of the most dynamic weapons in the conference who racked up 1,374 receiving yards (tied fifth in the NFL) last year. Having to defend both Ridley and Pitts will present a massive dilemma for opposing defenders and, if blitz-heavy new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees can improve a unit that was tied-20th in the NFL last year with 29 sacks for negative yardage, Atlanta could have the ingredients for a successful season.

The Falcons are stuck in a void between wanting to contend and needing to rebuild. Should the success Smith had as a play-caller in Tennessee continue in Atlanta, their dreams of contention could be realised.

Best Division – NFC West

The biggest barrier to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers posting a record to put themselves in the conversation for the number one seed in the conference is that they all reside in the same division, one which also contains an Arizona Cardinals team that was 6-3 at one point last campaign before collapsing to an 8-8 record.

With the Cardinals possessing one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in the form of Kyler Murray and an All-Pro wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the NFC West is a division that houses four playoff calibre teams as well as arguably the two best play-callers in the game in McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Blowouts in the division are rare and all four have proven in recent times that they can deal damaging blows to each other. As this quartet feels the pressure to make the postseason, they promise to produce some of the most fascinating matchups of 2021.

Worst Division – NFC East

The East is the antithesis of the West, with four flawed teams and questionable quarterback situations for every team except Dallas.

Prescott's injury helped the Washington Football Team reach the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2020, illustrating just how far what was once seen as the league's glamour division has fallen.

Washington will have the entertaining but erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback while New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones and his offensive line look ill-prepared to propel them to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts brings dual-threat intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles, yet theirs is a roster that likely has too many holes for him to overcome.

This is a division that will likely hinge on Prescott's ability to stay healthy and the performance of Washington's young and talented defense, but do not expect it to be an entertaining battle.

MVP Candidates

His offseason staring contest with the Packers in the rearview mirror, Rodgers will be in the running for his fourth MVP award should Green Bay again go deep into the playoffs and he replicates a 2020 campaign that saw him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of attempts, the third-highest ratio in the league.

Aaron Donald perennially loses out to quarterbacks, and it is tough to see what else the Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle can do to put himself over the top. Donald led the league with a remarkable pressure rate of 28.2 per cent in 2020 as he took home Defensive Player of Year honours.

His new team-mate Stafford could be in the mix if the former Detroit Lion proves the major upgrade on Jared Goff many expect him to be while Wilson will surely have a compelling claim if the Seahawks offense can sustain the level that saw Seattle lead the league with 298.1 net passing yards per game last year from Week 1 to Week 9 in 2020 for the entire season.

The elephant looming over the conference, though, is Brady and the Bucs, whose offense took over the league in the final four weeks of last season season, Brady enjoying a deep-ball renaissance that, if it carries into 2021 and Tampa remain best in the NFC class, will make him a tough candidate to beat.

Related items

  • Newcastle United 2-3 Tottenham: Kane off the mark as Spurs spoil the party at St James' Park Newcastle United 2-3 Tottenham: Kane off the mark as Spurs spoil the party at St James' Park

    Newcastle United's new era started with a familiar feeling of disappointment as Tottenham ran out 3-2 winners at St James' Park, with Sunday's match marred by a medical emergency in the stands.

    With the pre-match build up dominated by Newcastle's off-field changes, the club's new PIF owners were served up a stark reminder of the issues on the pitch as Steve Bruce's 1000th game as a manager ended in defeat.

    Callum Wilson's second-minute header buoyed an already rampant home crowd, but Tottenham hit back through Tanguy Ndombele before Harry Kane scored his first Premier League goal of the season.

    A fan was taken to hospital after an incident late in the first half, which led to a defibrillator being called for and the suspension of play. When it restarted, Kane turned provider for Son Heung-min.

    Jonjo Shelvey's red card seemed to erase any Newcastle hopes, only for Eric Dier's late own goal to worry Spurs, but it was ultimately not enough to inspire a comeback.

    Newcastle's pre-match elation swiftly carried onto the pitch. Only one minute and 47 seconds had passed when Wilson got ahead of his marker to head in Javier Manquillo's cross.

    Yet a blistering following 10 minutes failed to produce another Newcastle goal and, after Lucas Moura fired a warning shot, Spurs drew level through Ndombele's superb, curling strike into the right-hand side of the goal.

    Spurs' turnaround was complete five minutes later as Kane darted onto Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg's lofted pass and finished deftly over Darlow. The goal was initially disallowed for offside, but VAR spotted Manquillo's failure to step up in time.

    Lucas rattled the woodwork as Spurs searched for a third, though play was then suspended due to a medical emergency in the crowd.

    Spurs picked up where they left off following a long delay – Kane squaring for Son to make it 3-1.

    Devoid of ideas going forward, Newcastle's day turned from bad to worse in the 83rd minute.

    Shelvey, brought on as a 60th-minute substitute, brought down Sergio Reguilon, duly receiving his second yellow card.

    Newcastle were handed hope by Dier bundling into his own net, though Spurs held firm to condemn their hosts to another damaging defeat.


    What does it mean? Champions League? It’s the Championship that Newcastle need to worry about

    There has been no shortage of controversy surrounding the Saudi Arabian-backed takeover, but many fans have been left dreaming of what their club can achieve with such wealth at their disposal.

    However, talk of mega-money deals for global superstars must now make way for the bleak reality Newcastle face. They sit 19th, without a win to their name and only a point above Norwich City. It may be early in the campaign, but the focus come January has to be retaining the club's Premier League status. 

    Harry gets off the mark at his happy hunting ground

    Kane's misfortunes have become a major talking point in recent weeks, with last season's golden boot winner far from his best since his failed move to Manchester City.

    But he finally opened his league account for the campaign on Sunday, before then combining with his partner in crime Son. Six of Kane's seven top-flight goals for Spurs against Newcastle have come at St James' Park. He has only scored more away goals against Leicester City and Everton.

    Time up for Bruce?

    Bruce hit out at the media in his pre-match news conference, after numerous stories of his impending dismissal proved to be untrue. Yet on his milestone game as a manager, Bruce's deficiencies were there for all to see. Newcastle started brilliantly, but in the final 10 minutes, a chorus of "sacked in the morning" echoed around the stadium. It was not exactly clear which sets of supporters were responsible.

    His record stands at W376, D254, L370, while Bruce has won just four of his 27 encounters with Spurs in all competitions, and the speculation over his future seems set to continue as Newcastle's new owners assess the state of play.

    What's next?

    Newcastle face another London team in the form of an away game at Crystal Palace next Saturday, while Spurs travel to the Netherlands to play Vitesse in the Europa Conference League on Thursday.

  • Nagelsmann feels Bayern deserved even more goals in thumping Leverkusen win Nagelsmann feels Bayern deserved even more goals in thumping Leverkusen win

    Julian Nagelsmann was pleased with Bayern Munich's display in their 5-1 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen but felt his side should have added even more goals to their tally.

    The reigning champions responded to their first defeat of Nagelsmann's tenure two weeks ago against Eintracht Frankfurt with a superb attacking display at BayArena on Sunday.

    Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry each scored a first-half double and Thomas Muller was also on target in between those braces, all in the space of 37 minutes.

    It marked the first time Bayern have scored five goals away from home in the first half of a Bundesliga match as they reclaimed top spot from Borussia Dortmund.

    Bayern also hit the post through Leroy Sane, whose eight shots was the most of any player in a game this campaign in the German top flight.

    And with Patrik Schick getting a consolation for Leverkusen in the second half, Nagelsmann does not believe the scoreline was a true reflection come full-time.

    "We had an incredible number of closing situations and an outstanding structure," he told DAZN. 

    "It sounds strange at 5-0, but we also had a chance of scoring sixth, seventh and eighth goals in the first half. We could have scored more.

    "The second half was more calm and that's completely normal from both teams' point of view. 

    "A lot of things we didn't do well against Frankfurt worked out today. In the end we are very happy to win the game."

    Only twice before in Bundesliga history has an away side scored five goals in a quicker time from kick-off – Dortmund against Schalke (23 minutes) and Karlsruhe versus Frankfurt (30 minutes), both in 1964.

    There have been 10 occasions when teams have scored five or more goals in the first half of a Bundesliga game this century, with Bayern responsible for six of those 45-minute thrashings, including when they put five past Dortmund before the break in March 2018 on the way to a 6-0 win.

    Leverkusen are no strangers to one-sided first halves, meanwhile, as they are the only team to have scored six goals in the opening 45 minutes of a match in the division since the turn of the millennium, doing so in their 6-1 win over Frankfurt in 2018-19.

    "It was a terrible beginning," Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky added. "We have to ask ourselves whether we gave it our all. There was something missing from everyone today."

    Lewandowski's two goals came from three shots as the Poland international brought an end to his mini drought.

    His run of scoring in 15 successive league games was ended prior to the international break when failing to net against Greuther Furth and then Frankfurt, before also going scoreless in Poland's double-header of October fixtures.

    The 33-year-old has now scored two or more goals in 73 different Bundesliga games – a tally bettered only by late Bayern great Gerd Muller (87) – and was happy to joke about his short-lived scoreless run after getting back on the scoresheet.

    "Four games without a goal... which four games? Do you mean training? I scored in the Champions League game before the Frankfurt match," Lewandowski pointed out.

    "Personally, I'm happy when people ask when I'll score my next goal. That shows what expectations they have of me.

    "Sometimes there are phases when the ball doesn't fall to you, you have to be patient. Today it worked out twice.

    "We scored five goals in 45 minutes. At the break it was clear we would take all three points with us to Munich. We can be satisfied with the performance."

    The 29 goals scored by Bayern in their opening eight Bundesliga matches equals their previous highest tally at this stage in a campaign from the 1976-77 season.

  • Bayer Leverkusen 1-5 Bayern Munich: Nagelsmann's side turn on the style to reclaim top spot Bayer Leverkusen 1-5 Bayern Munich: Nagelsmann's side turn on the style to reclaim top spot

    Bayern Munich helped themselves to five first-half goals as they thumped Bayer Leverkusen 5-1 on Sunday to return to the top of the Bundesliga.

    The reigning champions suffered their first defeat of Julian Nagelsmann's tenure last time out, but they responded in the best way imaginable at BayArena.

    Robert Lewandowski and Serge Gnabry helped themselves to a couple of goals each in a one-way first half, with Thomas Muller registering in between those doubles.

    Leverkusen were level on points with Bayern before kick-off and pulled one back through Patrik Schick, but Nagelsmann's side were able to cruise through the rest of the match to overtake Borussia Dortmund at the summit.

    The hosts had won their previous five matches in all competitions, keeping a clean sheet in the last three of those, but it took Lewandowski just three minutes to backheel Dayot Upamecano's centre past Lukas Hradecky.

    Bayern went on to lose after opening the scoring against Frankfurt, but there was no sign of that happening against Leverkusen. Shortly after Leroy Sane sent a shot against the right post, Lewandowski lashed home a second of the game on the half-hour.

    That was the first of four goals in seven minutes, with Muller in the right place to deflect in a Niklas Sule shot before setting up Gnabry to score. Gnabry then joined Lewandowski in bagging a brace with a shot into the bottom-left corner.

    The visitors had kept a clean sheet in only one of their last nine league games, however, and that poor defensive record was extended when Schick latched onto Florian Wirtz's throughball and arrowed a shot past Manuel Neuer in the 55th minute.

    Sane squandered a couple of good opportunities to get in on the act, including a header over the bar from close range, while a disallowed Lucas Alario goal for offside was the closest Leverkusen went to further reducing the deficit.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.