NFL 2021 Contenders and Pretenders
As we inch closer to the midway point of the season, a select few teams are beginning to establish themselves as favorites in nearly every outing they appear in.
However, a handful of highly competitive squads have kept us waiting for a true breakout moment, as inconsistencies have held them back from being considered among the best of the best.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had us puzzled on a weekly basis throughout last year’s regular season, but when it mattered most, they were a dominant postseason force on both sides of the ball en route to a Super Bowl victory. With that being said, standings should be put aside when speculating potential title contenders.
Based on what we’ve seen so far from some of the more surprising teams in the playoff hunt, here are the biggest contenders and pretenders for this year’s postseason.
Dallas Cowboys (4-1)
As it stands, Dallas is looking like a force to be reckoned with in the NFC.
What makes America’s Team so lethal is the performance of a Dan Quinn-led defense that currently leads the NFL in interceptions at 10, including six from cornerback Trevon Diggs, an early candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Behind a defense that continues to create offensive opportunities for Dak Prescott, a sixth Lombardi Trophy could very well be coming home to Dallas in February.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-2)
Going into Week 6, the Bengals have suffered two losses by a total of six points and were just one Evan McPherson kick away from being 4-1.
Aside from a handful of ugly turnovers and 14 sacks, Joe Burrow has had great success firing the ball to a variety of weapons at his disposal.
Once the offensive line returns to full health, watch out for Burrow’s Bengals to make a Cinderella playoff run in a wide-open AFC.
New Orleans Saints (3-2)
While the performance of Jameis Winston has been far from assuring for New Orleans, he’s done just enough to lead the injury-plagued Saints to a 3-2 record through five games.
This week, New Orleans will be eligible to activate Michael Thomas, Terron Armstead and Erik McCoy onto the active roster. Once healthy, these players will make a massive impact on an inconsistent offense.
The Saints will get a chance to heal during their Week 6 bye and could be primed for a huge jump in the NFC standings upon their return.
Arizona Cardinals (5-0)
Despite Arizona being the only unbeaten team remaining in the league, there is one glaring factor as to why the Cardinals won’t be playing on the big stage in February: lack of playoff experience.
Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury have never appeared in an NFL postseason game. In fact, the franchise has advanced to the playoffs just eight times.
Until the coach-quarterback duo gets its feet wet in a few win-or-go-home scenarios, a competitive edge will be given to rosters with proven postseason track records.
Cleveland Browns (3-2)
Cleveland can never seem to put it all together against fellow AFC powerhouses. For this reason, it’s clear that they are not ready to make the jump to contender status.
After the Browns’ defense carried the load in Weeks 3 and 4, the script was flipped against the Chargers. Cleveland exploded for 531 total yards and 42 points, but Justin Herbert had his way with their secondary, throwing for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns.
It’s not often that you score four offensive touchdowns and lose a football game, but the Browns have done just that in two contests this year, dropping winnable games to both the Chiefs and Chargers. They’ll need to discover a recipe for success against contenders, or else they’ll be well on track for a first-round exit.
Kansas City Chiefs (2-3)
While it may seem a little early to write off Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs, it is for justifiable reasons.
Simply stated, this is not the same team that we have witnessed shatter records over the past few years. The Kansas City defense has been putrid, allowing 29 or more points in every game this season, and the offense has not shown the capability to score at will as they typically do.
While Kansas City is far from out of playoff contention, it’s going to take a lot more than Mahomes’ miracle work to claw this team out of the basement of the AFC West, a rare position for this franchise.
Grant Sheets is a first-year majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.