NFL

NFL 2021: Cowboys, Saints and the teams poised to rise or fall this season

By Sports Desk September 10, 2021

The 2021 NFL season began on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started their quest for a second straight Super Bowlw title with a thrilling victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

Having won his seventh ring in his first season with the Bucs playing in front of at best sparsely populated crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic, Brady and Tampa Bay claimed a 31-29 victory in front of a packed house at Raymond James Stadium.

While the return of fans and full stadiums will give this season a different look, once more it is the Bucs and the Kansas City Chiefs who go into the year as the teams to beat.

However, there are a host of other high-profile teams who could be set to improve on their 2020 win-loss records, as well as those who could be poised to decline from postseason contention.

With the help of Stats Perform data, here are some of the more intriguing teams to keep eye on as the NFL makes its much anticipated return.

With Dak back, Cowboys hope to contend

A gruesome ankle injury suffered by Dak Prescott in Week 5 ended Dallas' hopes of challenging last season.

As it turned out, further injuries on the offensive line and a miserable defense would have made it tough for the Cowboys to contend even if Prescott had been on the field to lead the offense, as their wait for a first Super Bowl since 1995 goes on.

But Prescott is back with the security of a lucrative new contract as Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup remain part of an explosive supporting cast and he delivered a compelling reminder of his upside in defeat to Tampa Bay, throwing for 403 yards, three touchdowns and an interception off the hands of Lamb.

Prescott has averaged 8.26 yards per attempt over the last two seasons, third best among NFL QBs, and there are huge hopes for the offense, particularly if the highly rated Lamb (74 catches for 935 yards in 2020) can kick on from a fine rookie season. Despite Lamb's drop leading to a turnover, the early signs were good as he caught seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown, helping Prescott average 6.95 yards per attempt and post a 101.4 passer rating.

If new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn can get the defense – which allowed 158.8 rushing yards per game last season (31st in the NFL) but just 52 against the Bucs - somewhere towards the middle of the pack, the Cowboys should soar well clear of their 6-10 mark from 2020 and will be justified favourites to win the NFC East.

Pats look to pressure Bills in AFC East

The Bills and Josh Allen were so good last season that they may decline from their 13-3 mark even without doing too much wrong.

Allen made an astonishing leap from year two to three – posting career highs in passing yards (3,089 to 4,544), passing touchdowns (20 to 37) and completion percentage (58.8 to 69.2), plus eight rushing scores - and was rewarded with a huge offseason contract extension.

Allen's numbers and rate of improvement are hard to sustain, and even a marginal decline could lead to a worse record in a competitive division.

Stefon Diggs was incredible with league-leading figures of 127 catches and 1,535 receiving yards, while Cole Beasley (82 catches for 967 yards) was a crucial complementary piece.

Allen and Diggs played all 16 games last season while Beasley only missed one, so there was good fortune on the health front, while the Bills were able to win close games last season – boasting a 5-1 record in one-score contests – a metric that often reverts to the mean.

Their divisional rivals, meanwhile, look threatening. The New England Patriots have spent big in free agency to revamp the supporting cast for rookie QB Mac Jones.

New England's tight end situation has been among the league's worst since the departure of Rob Gronkowski, but they doubled down at the position to land Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith.

Henry ranks sixth among tight ends with 1,265 yards since the start of the 2019 season, while only five TEs have more than the 11 TDs grabbed by the athletic Smith over that period.

Wide receiver Nelson Agholor arrived after a career year (896 yards) for the Las Vegas Raiders as the pass-catching options were significantly boosted.

A down year for the Patriots – in which their offensive weapons looked woeful and several defensive players opted out - still produced a not disastrous 7-9 record, with four of those losses coming by eight points or fewer.

The Miami Dolphins (3-4 in one score games) are another ascending team in the division after going 10-6 and allowing only 21.1 points per game (ried-fifth in the NFL).

Even the New York Jets, buoyed after selecting BYU QB Zach Wilson at number two overall, look poised to be more competitive than their 2-14 misery a season ago.

From worst to (somewhere nearer) first?

Trevor Lawrence has been billed as a generational talent at QB and there were few questions he would be selected at number one overall in the draft.

With Lawrence being paired with college coaching great Urban Meyer and an intriguing array of pass-catchers including Laviska Shenault (691 scrimmage yards, five TDs last year) and D. J. Chark (1,714 receiving yards since 2019), the Jags could be set for rapid improvement.

Even in their awful season that led to the chance to select Lawrence at the top of the draft, the Jags were 1-6 in one score games and slightly better than their 1-15 record suggested.

By the same metric, divisional rivals the Indianapolis Colts (5-2) and the Tennessee Titans (7-2) claimed many of their victories in close games.

With the Colts negotiating some uncertainty at QB as they look to revive the career of Carson Wentz – who is dealing with a foot injury – and the Houston Texans in disarray and full rebuild mode, the Jags could emerge as surprise challengers to the Titans.

Other teams who could rise and fall

Other teams who look likely to ascend include the San Francisco 49ers (6-10), who were ravaged with injuries last season and now have two viable options at QB with Jimmy Garoppolo and exciting draft pick Trey Lance. Five of their losses last season came by one score or less despite a depleted roster. 

The Denver Broncos (5-11)  have a stacked roster with their only concerns coming at the QB position, where they hope Teddy Bridgewater can provide more stability than the volatile Drew Lock (16 TDs and 15 INTs in 2020), despite coming off a poor season with the Carolina Panthers, who opted to replace him with Sam Darnold.

The New Orleans Saints (12-4) could be trending in the opposite direction, though. While Drew Brees was not at his peak in his final NFL season, a combination of Jameis Wilson and Taysom Hill must now try to replace the future Hall of Famer while keeping pace with the formidable Bucs and an Atlanta Falcons team that has added dynamic tight end Kyle Pitts.

New Orleans' offseason was defined by a roster overhaul enforced by the Saints' salary cap woe, leaving them with a wide receiver depth chart that looks alarming with Michael Thomas (missed nine games in 2020) starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list.

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