The Check-down Check-up (2021): Season Predictions

The NFL season looms right around the corner. With the preseason finally, mercifully finished, I figured it might be time to dust off the old Confidence Index and put it back to work. In fact, since it’s had so much time off, I’m putting it to extra work this week. In this column, I’ll be previewing this week’s games as always, but I’ll also try to forecast the season as a whole, and even the big postseason awards. As a reminder, anything under four is a check down, anything above seven is a check up, and anything between those fours and sevens is a “check back next week.” So, who’s coming up? Who’s on their way down? Which team am I locking in with total confidence this week? Let’s find out.

AFC North

Cleveland Browns

The Browns are… an intriguing squad this year. There’s a lot to love, with the defensive additions of John Johnson III, Troy Hill, Jadeveon Clowney on the edge, and a slew of rookies who have impressed early, including perhaps the steal of the 2021 NFL Draft, hybrid defender Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. And really, that’s the one thing I worry about with Cleveland. The offensive group is downright loaded, and the coaching staff has shown itself to be stellar, but I fear the defense might need some time to gel, and maybe the Browns get off to a slow start? I’m picking the Chiefs to beat them in a close one in week one, but with the Texans on the horizon, Cleveland’s got nothing to worry about.

Verdict: 9/10, Check Up
Season Prediction: 12-5

Baltimore Ravens

Losing both J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill before the season is a big hit, especially for a run-heavy team like the Ravens. Baltimore seems to have the worst injury luck right now, but it never seemed to bother them before. I won’t go as far to say that this is a make or break season for Lamar Jackson; he’s going to get a big-money extension regardless (unless he completely implodes). But I will say that it’s a big season for Jackson to prove that 2019 is the rule, not the exception, when it comes to his play style and how much he can do for Baltimore. I like them to walk into Las Vegas and take home a win, but it won’t be cut and dry with how much they’ll need to patch up the offense.

Verdict: 8.5/10, Check Up
Season Prediction: 11-6

Pittsburgh Steelers

This iteration of the Steelers would make me really worried if I were a fan out there in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger, as we all saw just last year, isn’t getting any younger. Combine that with Kevin Colbert’s refusal to take an offensive lineman early in the draft in favor of running back Najee Harris, and the Steelers could very well have a recipe for a lost season. But, seeing as they’re the Steelers, and they’re never really, truly awful, I find it hard to drop them too much in my confidence rankings. The offensive line might be a total patchwork of rookies and just-a-guy’s, but they’ll figure it out. They usually do.

Verdict: 6.5/10, Check Back Next Week
Season Prediction: 9-8

Cincinnati Bengals

This is Zac Taylor’s time of reckoning. If this Bengals team doesn’t at least sniff the playoff hunt, or god forbid, if Joe Burrow gets injured again, he’s as good as gone. The Bengals might not even wait until the infamous “Black Monday” to fire him. But let’s focus on how they performed in the offseason first. I have the same problem with their draft as I did with Pittsburgh’s. Penei Sewell was sitting in front of your face, and you took a receiver who seems to have a drops problem. Even so, I think the Bengals start 1-0 this season facing off against the Vikings, but that’s more an indictment on Minnesota than anything else.

Verdict: 4/10, Check Down
Season Prediction: 6-11

AFC East

New England Patriots

Either the New England area is insanely good at talking up their young quarterback, or Mac Jones is the second coming of Jesus Christ himself. Bill Belichick gave Jones the starting nod over the veteran Cam Newton and then promptly cut Newton to go full boar on putting his eggs in the Mac Basket. I don’t love how the Pats attacked this offseason, throwing money at any free agent who looked their way, but I do think they have something in Mac Jones, simply because I trust Belichick. They’ll be improved this season, but I’m not exactly sure how much. I don’t think they beat Miami in week one, but maybe they can come close?

Verdict: 5/10, Check Back Next Week
Season Prediction: 9-8

Miami Dolphins

Speaking of the Dolphins, it doesn’t seem like they really did anything to make themselves substantially better over the offseason, other than just keep guys for another year in the system. Don’t get me wrong, it seems to be a good system that Brian Flores has going over there, but Tua is still their quarterback, and it seems like they’re already done with him in Miami. Their defense has never been the question, but I am worried that the offense is going to stall out at points and keep them from reaching their true potential.

Verdict: 7.75/10, Check Up
Season Prediction: 10-7

Buffalo Bills

Despite the strides made by the other teams in their division, the Buffalo Bills look primed to dominate the AFC East once again this season. Even with a little bit of nearly-guaranteed regression to the mean by quarterback Josh Allen, the Bills are so balanced, and the roster is so nicely set up, that they should be able to coast to a division win like they did last season. I like Buffalo to beat Pittsburgh in week one, and actually start the season undefeated until they run into the Chiefs on Oct. 10.

Verdict: 9/10, Check Up
Season Prediction: 13-4

New York Jets

Don’t get me wrong, I love what the Jets are doing here. Robert Saleh was my favorite head coaching hire of this cycle, I think they knocked it out of the park with their first few draft picks, and they seem to have their heads on straight with the current regime in the front office. But despite all those big positives, I don’t think New York is ready for prime time just yet. This team is probably a year or two away from cracking into the playoff picture, and I hope the Jets afford Saleh and Co. enough time to see that through. I think they’ll lose this week against Carolina, but the talent is definitely there.

Verdict: 3.25/10, Check Down
Season Prediction: 5-12

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts

People are really, really high on this Colts team, and I just don’t get it, man. We’ve seen throughout this offseason just how big a competitive advantage getting vaccinated can be in the NFL, and it seems like Indy is the biggest outlier here. What happens when they suffer an outbreak and lose two, even three straight because of it? It seems bound to happen, and with important players like Carson Wentz and Darius Leonard refusing to get vaccinated, I smell disaster in Indianapolis. Wentz or not, I’ll take the Seahawks to beat them handedly this week.

Verdict: 5/10, Check Back Next Week
Season Prediction: 8-9

Houston Texans

This team is pathetic. Next question.

Verdict: 0.25/10, Check Down
Season Prediction: 1-16

Jacksonville Jaguars

Hey, if it wasn’t for their incredibly weird coaching hire, I think I’d actually be a Jaguars believer this year! What can I say about Trevor Lawrence that hasn’t already been said? I’m really digging the slew of weapons they’ve put around Lawrence like Laviska Shenault Jr. and D.J. Chark. Their defense isn’t going to be phenomenal by any stretch, but it could be good enough to win them some games (I especially love the addition of Andre Cisco at safety). But my worry lies with Urban Meyer. What’s going to happen when the Jags start losing? Will his rah-rah coaching style still hold up?

Verdict: 2.5/10, Check Down
Season Prediction: 6-11

Tennessee Titans

I think Tennessee wins this division running away. I’ve just said I’m not a Colts guy, the Jags aren’t ready yet, and the Houston Texans are the worst franchise in football. There’s really no competition here, even if the Titans regress due to the absence of Arthur Smith, Jonnu Smith, and Corey Davis. Adding Julio is a really nice touch to a balanced offense, and Derrick Henry is still Derrick Henry. The offensive game plan might look different, but Henry is still going to be running through people and Tannehill can sling it. The Titans are looking good, and I’ve got them beating Arizona this week.

Verdict: 8/10, Check Up
Season Prediction: 11-6

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs are the best team in the National Football League. Next question.

Verdict: 10/10, Check Up
Season Prediction: 15-2, AFC Bye

Denver Broncos

Denver, you guys make me so sad. The Broncos are tailor-made for success. Their offensive weaponry? Stellar. Offensive line? Solid. Defensive potential? Through the roof. But your quarterbacking options are Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock? That simply will not do. I wish the Broncos were better than they are, because a team with a roster that flashy and fun deserves to be seen and cherished by the masses. Instead, they’ll probably flounder in quarterback hell. Teddy’s good enough to win you some games, but not enough to get into the playoffs unless everything else goes perfectly.

Verdict: 4.5/10, Check Back Next Week
Season Prediction: 5-12

Los Angeles Chargers

I am oh, so high on this Los Angeles Chargers team. Justin Herbert proved himself as an upper-tier quarterback last season (even if he’s not exactly elite (yet)) and the Chargers went and got flat-out better this offseason. I love the draft they had, especially getting Rashawn Slater at No. 13 in the first round, and their coaching hire is intriguing in a good way with young prodigy Brandon Staley. They have a tough matchup with the Washington Football Team this week, but I think they come out on top despite the WFT’s elite defense.

Verdict: 8.25/10, Check Up
Season Prediction: 11-6

Las Vegas Raiders

If Jon Gruden had literally any other last name, he’d be gone by now. I firmly believe that. Vegas floundered down the stretch last year due to Gruden’s refusal to change his game plans both during games and week to week. Derek Carr is somehow both underrated and overrated, and while the offensive line moves could be good in a vacuum, it seems like the reality of it is that they got worse up front. Still, I love their offensive weaponry, and if they can accrue any semblance of a defense, they might not be that bad. I just don’t love what they’re doing under Gruden, and I think it’s only a matter of time before the cracks that are showing get busted wide open.

Verdict: 6.75/10, Check Back Next Week
Season Prediction: 7-10

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