9 incredibly accurate* predictions for the second half of the NFL season
*At least one of these is probably right! Just like our pick for Ravens vs. Dolphins on Thursday Night Football.
Two months ago, we attempted to make a series of predictions about how the 2021 season would unfold. For the most part, we’ve been very wrong, but we expected that. It’s really hard trying to crystal-ball a regular week in the NFL, let alone a whole season.
That won’t stop us from trying again! Maybe now that we have half a season’s worth of context, we’ll actually get a few of these right … or, ya know, at least one.
The Rams will earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC
Sure, they just stunk it up on Sunday Night Football against a legitimate opponent (and the Titans didn’t even have Derrick Henry). That lackluster performance seemed like an anomaly, however. The defense did its part, but the offense never recovered from Matthew Stafford’s back-to-back interceptions in the first half — an act so rare it’s only happened that one time.
Even after that dud, Stafford leads the league in passing yards, passer rating, and QBR while the Rams offense is ranked No. 2 in DVOA. That side of the ball is in great shape, and there’s even a chance they’ll bring back an old friend to bolster their receiving depth. Although the defense hasn’t been as dominant as it was last year, it’s been on the upswing — and Von Miller hasn’t even made his LA debut yet.
The Rams can earn a few more signature wins, with upcoming matchups against the Packers, Cardinals, and Ravens. The Bucs have an easier schedule and could cruise to the NFC’s No. 1 seed. But the Rams hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the defending champs. If they can avoid another off game, then Sean McVay’s team can ride a hot streak all the way to the top.
Cooper Kupp will break Calvin Johnson’s record of 1,964 receiving yards in a single season*
*because he has an extra game to get it done.
Kupp has emerged as the top target in a Rams offense that throws more than 37 times per game despite a 7-2 record that’s led to plenty of second-half leads. Matthew Stafford is firmly in the MVP hunt, and his best chance to keep his hat in the ring is to keep throwing prolifically for a winning team.
That means Kupp has a great chance to keep this pace; he’s proven he can be a workhorse in the past. He had 6,464 receiving yards across only 52 college games at Eastern Washington and has averaged roughly 70 receiving yards per game since becoming a full-time NFL starter in 2018. He’s already at 1,019 yards with eight games left in the season and would have to average 118 yards per game to catch Megatron. He’s averaged 113 YPG to start the season and has tallied more than 11 targets per game with Stafford as his QB.
Sean McVay didn’t come this far to come this far. The Rams are all-in in 2021, and that includes putting the throttle down so his offense can set some records along the way.
Tom Brady will, sigh, win NFL MVP honors again
I don’t like it any more than you do, but this guy simply refuses to slow down. Tom Brady is just behind Matthew Stafford in QBR and passing yards (Brady’s played one fewer game), is No. 4 in passer rating, and leads the NFL in touchdown passes. He’s done this even without a couple of his favorite targets — both Gronk and Antonio Brown have missed time due to injury — and while his defense has had its share of health issues.
The Bucs should have no problem locking down the NFC South title, especially with their remaining schedule:
And they should put themselves in contention for the top seed in the conference as well. That, coupled with the numbers he’s putting up, means Brady would have as good of a case as anyone for MVP honors, as boring as it might be.
Just look at his competition: Stafford and Cooper Kupp will split votes. Kyler Murray has been banged up (and we just found out the Cardinals can win without him, somehow). Josh Allen’s stats have dipped this year after last season’s breakout (and he lost to the Jags). Aaron Rodgers’ performance isn’t on par with his MVP season from a year ago, and he might have taken himself out of the conversation by being a dumbass. Lamar Jackson has been a magician each week, but the Ravens probably can’t sustain their “fall behind by double digits, then let Jackson and Justin Tucker save us” strategy all season.
There is an upside if Brady wins his fourth MVP Award, though: His team has never won a Super Bowl in the same season he’s been named league MVP.
The Bills will fade … but still win the AFC East
Buffalo currently has the shortest odds to win Super Bowl 56. Josh Allen and Tom Brady are tied as bettor’s MVP co-favorites. But while the 5-3 Bills currently hold the league’s second-best scoring differential — behind only the Arizona Cardinals — there’s not much substance behind their start.
They currently only have one victory over a team with more than two wins, and that was the suddenly rudderless Chiefs. Their other four wins have come against Washington Generals-level competition, and somehow this Globetrotter team managed to lose one of those games by imploding against Urban Meyer’s band of poorly coached misfits. Allen is capable of higher highs than almost any other player in the league, but remains prone to the brainfarts that marred his first two seasons in the league.
Buffalo looked like a world-beater — not just in power rankings, but by DVOA — by mashing overwhelmed opponents and forcing turnovers at an unsustainable rate. It’s due to crash back to earth, and with the Patriots only a half-game behind them, it’s time to start looking over a shoulder and at a glaring Bill Belichick. The Bills still have the defense to force Mac Jones into mistakes and fight their way to a second straight AFC East title, but it won’t be the cake walk it once appeared to be.
The Patriots will make the playoffs
The Patriots are at least making the AFC East race a little interesting, even if the Bills should wind up with back-to-back division titles. A second-place finish could still be enough for New England to make it back to the postseason.
The AFC North and West are cannibalizing themselves. The Titans basically have the AFC South sewn up, and even if the Colts put together a second-half run, the Patriots have a chance to earn a head-to-head win over them in Week 15. If they do, that could end up as the tiebreaker for one of the three wild card spots. There’s currently a logjam of five-win teams in the AFC, and nine wins might be enough for that No. 7 seed.
Right now, the Patriots have won four of their last five and they could have been riding a five-game winning streak if not for an overtime loss to the Cowboys. They’ve found a formula for success: a quarterback who can manage the game and limit mistakes; a resurgent running game; and an opportunistic defense that has forced 11 turnovers in the last five weeks.
They still have several difficult matchups left on the schedule, including two games against the Bills, and a date with both the Titans and Browns (who may or may not have any running back depth for that meeting). But they also face lighter competition, like the Falcons, Jaguars, and Dolphins. With the way the Patriots are playing, four more wins is doable.
The Lions won’t win a game … they’ll win two!
The Lions are the last remaining winless team in the NFL. At times, they’ve looked capable of upsetting their toughest competition. At other times, they’ve looked like they’re headed toward becoming the first 0-17 squad in NFL history.
I don’t believe the Lions will go 0-fer for the second time in 13 years, even though they’re coming off their most hapless loss yet, a 44-6 curbstomping courtesy of the Eagles. That disaster aside, Dan Campbell’s team plays hard and could catch an opponent who might not take them seriously.
There is no obvious win, let alone wins, on Detroit’s upcoming schedule — only the Bears and Seahawks (who will presumably have Russell Wilson on hand for that Week 17 clash) currently have losing records. But at this time last year, who would’ve thought the Jets would end up with two victories? They went winless until Week 15, then knocked off eventual playoff teams in consecutive weeks.
As bleak as things have been for the Lions this year — if we’re being honest, most years — they have enough fight to pull off a similar feat.
Justin Fields will make a real run at Rookie of the Year
This year’s crop of rookies has suffered through an uneven first two months. Ja’Marr Chase jumped into pole position for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but has faded as opponents have stifled the Bengals’ explosive passing attack. Trevor Lawrence has struggled as the centerpiece of an awful Jaguars offense. Trey Lance and Zach Wilson both got hurt. Mac Jones has been … aggressively OK.
But Fields, now firmly entrenched as the Bears’ QB1, is beginning to make his presence felt as a potential franchise cornerstone in Chicago. It started with a solid performance against the 49ers that saw him make full use of his pocket-escaping capabilities en route to a 103-yard rushing performance. That gave way to a 336-yard game against the Steelers that may have ended in an upset win at Heinz Field if not for a stunning new episode of The Ref Show.
Suddenly, Fields looks more confident in the pocket, is getting plays called for him that utilize his roll-out strengths, and is dialing up downfield passes more than ever. His 10.1 average air yards per pass are tied with Lamar Jackson for longest in the league so far. In Pittsburgh, that meant more opportunities for the criminally underused Allen Robinson and my absolute binky Darnell Mooney.
More growing pains will follow, but Fields has shown he can be the best quarterback in his class. That might not be enough to catch Chase after his historic start to 2021, but it should be enough to endear him to Bears fans who’ve been wandering through a quarterback desert for three-plus decades.
Matt Nagy will get fired anyway
I read this prediction in my latest issue of Duh! Weekly. On Monday, he looked at a kicker who’s made three field goals of 50+ yards SINCE 2016 and decided he was a great candidate for a 65-yard game-winning attempt. Dude’s broken.
The AFC West won’t be decided until Week 18
Almost every year, at least one division comes down to the final week of the season. There could very well be more than one this year, but if we can only pick one, the AFC West is the most obvious candidate.
As of right now, every team in the division has five wins (the Chargers and Raiders have three losses, while the Broncos and Chiefs have four). None of those four have been good enough to separate themselves from the pack, nor have any been bad enough to throw in the towel on this season. Just when you thought the Broncos might have reached that point, they turned around and kicked the crap out of the Cowboys. Just when you thought the Raiders had found their groove, they went and lost to the Giants.
The Chargers, who recently ended their two-game skid with a close win over the Eagles, are the favorites. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 49 percent chance of winning the division, ahead of the Chiefs (23 percent), Raiders (15 percent), and Broncos (14 percent). LA also, just barely, ranks above the other three in overall team efficiency. Appropriately enough, all four fall into the middle class of the NFL, because they have been too inconsistent to break through to the upper tier.
It’s hard to believe one of these teams will go on a run that elevates them atop the division before the final week arrives. When Jan. 9 does get here, then one or both of Chiefs-Broncos and Chargers-Raiders will decide who the AFC West champs are.
Thursday Night Football pick: Ravens vs. Dolphins
Last week, the Dolphins finally ended their seven-game losing streak … mostly because they were playing the Texans. At the same time, the Ravens were following their usual script of relying on Lamar Jackson’s heroics and Justin Tucker’s leg to dig them out of a big hole. Jackson currently leads the league with four game-winning drives — the same amount he had in his first three seasons combined.
On the one hand, it didn’t work out last time the Ravens went on the road in a primetime showdown (a Week 1 loss to the Raiders in OT). On the other hand, this week they’re facing a 2-7 Dolphins team that might again be without Tua Tagovailoa. Jackson should lead the Ravens to their seventh win of the season, and he won’t need a late drive to do it. Probably, anyway.