The NFL’s Super Bowl hierarchy is beginning to emerge, young quarterbacks are becoming the league’s driving force, and much more
In a league built on parity, the 2021 NFL season has already dispelled the late Pete Rozelle’s notion of any team being able to beat another on “any given Sunday.”
Through the first six weeks, nine teams have separated themselves from the pack. And all nine share some distinctly important characteristics.
All nine have either developed or signed franchise quarterbacks, have built the infrastructure of solid offensive lines, reliable stars at the offensive skill positions to support their quarterback, and are led by head coaches who have either already achieved Super Bowl experience or are among the up and coming head coaches in the league.
The gap between these nine teams and the rest of the NFL seems to be widening each week. And There’s a very real possibility eight of them make it to the Divisional round.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Is a anyone betting against Tom Brady, especially with a supporting cast that includes Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Rob Gronkowski? The Buccaneers currently sit No. 4 in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, while boasting the league’s No. 3 rated offense No. 9 ranked defense.
But, in order to make it through the NFC gauntlet, the Buccaneers are going to need to replicate or even surpass Todd Bowles’ January success from a year ago.
That could prove challenging against a postseason slate that might include the Dallas Cowboys (No. 1 ranked offense), Arizona Cardinals (No. 7 ranked offense), and the Los Angeles Rams (No. 8 ranked offense). Last season, the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl roadmap saw the No. 30, No. 12, No. 5, and No. 1 ranked offenses.
The Cardinals are the NFL’s last remaining unbeaten, having dispatched the 10th-hardest schedule to date. Arizona has tucked away wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Rams, giving them a significant leg-up in the division race as well as for home field in the NFC.
But, the Cardinals have been here before. Last season, Arizona raced out to a 5-2 start before fading down the stretch and losing six of their final nine seasons. Whether head coach Kliff Kingsbury learned from last season’s failures might be the biggest question looming over the Valley of The Sun.
Dak Prescott is playing the best football of his career, maybe even playing his way into the pantheon of the NFL’s top quarterbacks.
With one of the most explosive supporting casts in the NFL, Prescott is fifth in passing yards, third in touchdowns, and has won both in blowout and comeback fashions.
But the Cowboys might need to prove capable of winning in the postseason in spite of head coach Mike McCarthy, rather than because of him, despite his Super Bowl experience. McCarthy is just 10-8 all-time in the playoffs, with six one-and-dones in his 14 trips to the postseason with Green Bay.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers has been strong this season, passing for 1,436 yards with 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions, but the Packers are only outscoring opponents by 1.3 points per game.
The combination of injuries on defense, and a remaining schedule that boasts a .530 winning percentage and includes showdowns against the Cardinals, Rams, Ravens, Chiefs and Vikings will say a lot about how lofty Green Bay’s ceiling is this season.
Los Angeles Rams
Matthew Stafford looks like the NFL’s MVP through the first six games.
Already knocking off the Buccaneers and Seahawks, the Rams have shown the ability to knock off playoff-caliber competition. Additionally, Sean McVay has Super Bowl experience and this may be the most gifted roster he’s had at his disposal during his five-year tenure.
But, the Rams will likely need to overcome the Cardinals to get a home game in the playoffs, and Stafford has made just three postseason appearances through the first 12 years of his career — albeit with the Detroit Lions. He’s 0-3.
Tripping up Monday night in Tennessee not withstanding, the Bills might be the most talented roster from top to bottom in the NFL, with an MVP-caliber quarterback.
Buffalo is already through the teeth of its schedule, emerging at 4-2 with the easiest road home in the NFL; a .371 remaining strength of schedule. The only current playoff teams remaining for the Bills are the Buccaneers and Saints.
However, Tennessee proved the Bills aren’t invincible. Buffalo has lost two winnable games this year. Plus, how does it handle the pressure of becoming the hunted?
Lamar Jackson is already one of the more electrifying quarterbacks. As a runner, he’s averaging 824 yards and 76 yards per start.
Yet Jackson has made significant strides as a passer through the first quarter of this season, having completed a career-high 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,686 yards with nine touchdowns to five interceptions.
But, to win in January, Jackson is going to need to prove he can win throwing outside the numbers, which has been his Achilles heel through his first three seasons. Jackson completed just two passes outside the numbers in last season’s AFC Divisional loss to the Bills, and was just 4-of-8 against the Chargers when throwing outside the numbers on Sunday afternoon.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers check most of the boxes a Super Bowl contender must; a young franchise quarterback who is improving each week, one of the NFL’s brightest up-and-coming head coaches, and a scheme that has proven capable of delivering sustained success.
Justin Herbert has shown he can have the kind of success in Joe Lombardi’s system with Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams that Drew Brees delivered with Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and the rest of the Saints’ weapons.
But, that defense has been a sieve.
On the road in Baltimore, the Chargers were gashed for 189 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground. If the Chargers’ struggles on defense are due to more than playing elite competition, it may put a cap on how far Herbert can lead them.
Kansas City Chiefs
Raise your hand if you’ll be betting against Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce in January? Anyone? Moving along …
While the Chiefs certainly have banked away the experience of playing in two consecutive Super Bowls and understand what it takes to hoist the Lombardi, Kansas City’s defense might be its undoing.
Even with all of the firepower around Mahomes, Kansas City has struggled to outscore the Chiefs’ floundering defense, with a point differential of just 1.7 points per game.
Mahomes has never played a playoff game away from Arrowhead, but might be forced to now, after limping to a 3-3 start and staring down the barrel at a remaining slate of opponents with a remaining strength of schedule of .606.
Young quarterbacks asserting their dominance
Of the nine teams mentioned above, seven of them drafted the quarterback leading their Super Bowl charge and three of them are still on their rookie contracts.
This era might be the strongest in decades when it comes to quarterbacks under the age of 30, with Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson already displaying MVP trophies in their homes as Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, and Justin Herbert look every bit capable of adding one to their collection this season.
Of the 32 starting quarterbacks this season, 17 have been drafted since 2016, and if the NFL playoffs kicked off today, they would make up half the field.
Who is the one quarterback under the age of 30 that is the toughest to game plan for, and who would those inside the league most want to build their franchise around? FanSided spoke to multiple coaches, scouts, executives, and players to get their selections.
“If I could build around anyone right now, it would be Justin Herbert,” an NFC head coach tells FanSided. “He has all the arm strength you’d want, he’s incredibly accurate, he’s mobile, and he makes really sound decisions under pressure.”
Herbert seems to improve every single week.
Through the first six games of his second NFL season, Herbert has already led fourth quarter game-winning drives; on the road in Washington, Kansas City, and home against the Browns.
Thanks to Herbert’s 65.4 completion percentage, 1,771 passing yards with 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions, the Chargers sit atop the AFC West with division victories tucked away over the Chiefs and Raiders.
But, it’s a quarterback in the AFC that multiple personnel executives would hate to face the most in January.
“I’d hate to be the defensive coordinator who has to game plan against Lamar Jackson,” an AFC Personnel Director tells FanSided. “He’s certainly grown as a passer, and while I’m still kind of skeptical he can do it across three or four games … But in one game? He’s an absolute nightmare to handle.”
Jackson’s dramatic improvement as a passer has been one of the biggest storylines of the season’s first two months.
“Defensive coordinators will tell you Lamar is the one guy you’d hate to defend,” an AFC offensive coordinator tells FanSided.
“I might even fear game planning against Lamar more than Patrick Mahomes,” an NFC pro personnel director echoes.
Teams are rightfully put on notice by Jackson improving his completion percentage by five points, passing for one more touchdown and three fewer interceptions over the first six games compared to the same stretch last season.
For Jackson and Baltimore, it now comes down to whether he can continue to improve as a deep-ball thrower come December and January. That’s when the Ravens might need Jackson to win games through the air, snow, wind, and rain .. and whether he can stay healthy, a concern shared by multiple league insiders.
But, the quarterback most say they’d hope to start a franchise around has no concerns about arm-strength and has been to the doorstep the Super Bowl, and seems primed to make another run at hoisting his franchise’s first Lombardi.
Both top personnel men, one from each conference, say Allen would be their pick of this current crop of young quarterbacks.
“Allen has a lot of the traits you look for in a quarterback you want to build your franchise around,” the NFC executive says.
It’s easy to see why.
Allen has already surpassed 300 yards in three of Buffalo’s first six games, has thrown multiple touchdowns in all but one game this season, and is leading a Bills offense that has scored two fewer points than the Dallas Cowboys’ NFL leading 205.
“You have to defend the whole field until the whistle blows, on every single play, against him,” an AFC South scout tells FanSided. “Because everyone knows he has elite arm strength, but he can beat you with his legs, too.”
Those legs, and that arm, just might be the key to the Bills making a legitimate Super Bowl run.
— Lane Johnson (@LaneJohnson65) October 18, 2021
Lane Johnson is one of the Eagles’ cornerstone players, and he deserves to be commended for coming forward and announcing his struggles to the world like this.
Johnson’s strength has the potential to inspire others who might be struggling with anxiety, depression or mental health to seek the kind of help they need in order to overcome their own demons.
Likewise, credit to the Eagles for allowing Johnson to step away from the team for three weeks. Jeffrey Lurie’s Eagles have always been among the more forward-thinking and progressive organizations in sports, and allowing Johnson the time he needs to address his issues speaks to that.
The Eagles’ actions will hopefully one day not be so extraordinary, but rather the model for how all companies allow their employees to address their mental health.
Unfortunately, and wrongly, there is still a stigma attached to mental health in this country. But, thanks to organizations like the Eagles, and people like Johnson, we’re a little bit closer to viewing mental health the same way we view any sort of injury or illness.
Derrick Henry is the exception, rather than the rule.
Henry hoisted the Tennessee Titans on his back and bulldozed past the Buffalo Bills Monday night in Nashville, rushing for 143 yards and three touchdowns, while averaging an absolutely insane 7.2 yards per carry.
Henry is averaging 130.5 yards and 1.6 touchdowns per game.
Henry has the kind of game-altering ability that can change the outcome or trajectory of a game with one carry, as we saw during Monday night’s 34-31 thriller that sent shockwaves through the AFC playoff race.
But, even Henry’s dominance doesn’t dispel the notion that investing premium draft capital in the running back position is a fool’s errand in the modern NFL.
Saquon Barkley missed Sunday’s New York Giants blowout loss to the Rams, and has only been on the field for 66 percent of New York’s games since being chosen No. 2 overall in 2018.
Barkley’s injury history is now lengthier than his on-field accomplishments, having missed time due to a high ankle sprain in 2019, torn ACL in 2020 and now a sprained ankle in 2021.
Meanwhile, Christian McCaffrey is on injured reserve thanks to a hamstring injury, and the impact his absence has had on the Panthers’ offense has been profound.
Carolina has last three straight with McCaffrey sidelined, after opening the season 3-0, with him in the backfield.
Running backs still matter, but teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals who boast multi-back stables are seemingly the model to how successful teams are constructed.
After all, there’s only one Henry and even his Titans have won just three playoff games during his career.