NFL

NFL 2021: Time to bet against Brady? – The experts have their say

By Sports Desk September 10, 2021

If the opener is any evidence, the 2021 NFL season is set to be a rollercoaster ride.

Defending champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerged victorious from a frenetic encounter with the Dallas Cowboys, raising their Super Bowl LV title banner and then prevailing 31-29.

No team has won the Super Bowl in successive years since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots did so in the 2004 season. He will aim to repeat the feat having led the Bucs to glory last year, but do they deserve their status as favourites to retain the Lombardi Trophy, or will the Kansas City Chiefs or another of their potential challengers stand triumphant in Los Angeles come February?

With a jam-packed first Sunday of the campaign on the horizon, Stats Perform's panel of experts make their predictions for what promises to be a fascinating season.

Nicholas McGee: Shanahan puts his Super Bowl curse to bed

AFC Champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC Champion: San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl Champion: San Francisco 49ers
MVP: Tom Brady

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan has endured his fair share of Super Bowl heartbreak, receiving criticism after the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI when he was the offensive coordinator and in the wake of the Niners' fourth-quarter collapse against the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV two seasons ago.

But the roster Shanahan has at his disposal is one primed to contend to go deep into the postseason again. Nick Bosa leads an extremely deep defensive line that has the talent to take over games while the offense is flush with playmakers. The question is when dual-threat quarterback Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the draft, will be ready to win the starting quarterback job from Jimmy Garoppolo.

With Lance adding another element to the rushing offense, a ground attack that ranked second in yards per game in 2019 has the potential to become a near-unstoppable force and lay the foundation for Shanahan to finally get his hands on the Lombardi Trophy.

In Tampa, Brady looks to be somehow getting stronger with age and, if that continues throughout the campaign and the Bucs are contending to repeat as champions, it will be difficult to look past him for MVP. With pass rushers that can overwhelm opponents and a diverse rushing attack, the 49ers have a potential formula to dictate a game against Tampa and end Brady's hopes of an eighth title.

The Browns have a strong case for the top running game in the NFL going into the season. An excellent supporting cast for Baker Mayfield and a superb offensive line means the 2018 number one overall pick has everything he needs to push Cleveland to a deep postseason run. On defense, the Browns have made astute additions at linebacker and in the secondary and boast one of the most well-rounded rosters in the league. Yet in a matchup between their head coach Kevin Stefanski and Shanahan, the nod has to go to the league's pre-eminent play-caller.

Rob Lancaster: Dak is back, and so are the Cowboys as an NFC force!

AFC Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC Champion: Dallas Cowboys
Super Bowl Champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Dak Prescott

How 'bout them Cowboys! The call may be brave, but the NFC has not seen a back-to-back champion since the Seahawks in 2014 and Dallas' performance in the opener was one of a team that should not only be favourite for their NFC East division but also contend for a conference title they will see as long overdue.

The Cowboys piled up points when Dak Prescott was healthy, though they didn't equate to wins. His 403 passing yards and three touchdowns were also not enough against the Bucs, but they should serve to allay concerns over the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season or the shoulder issue that overshadowed his preseason and boost hopes he can perform at a level that helped Dallas average 509.5 net yards per game in the first four weeks of the previous campaign.

The key to Dallas realising their potential is the defense, where the Cowboys hope the presence of Dan Quinn as coordinator should help see vast improvements. The early signs were promising against Tampa Bay as a team that allowed 2,541 rushing yards last year gave up only 52 to the Buccaneers on Thursday. If they can become even an average defense this season and get the best out of Prescott, that is a recipe for a Super Bowl challenge. 

As for the Chiefs, a Super Bowl defeat is one thing, but they were embarrassed by the Bucs. The response has been to improve the offensive line, making sure Patrick Mahomes has time to work his magic. Not only will they get back to the big game, this time they will triumph, dashing Jerry Jones' dream of hosting a title parade in Texas.

Chris Myson: Never bet against Brady

AFC champion: Cleveland Browns
NFC champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Super Bowl champion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
MVP: Tom Brady

The Buccaneers took time to find their groove last season, understandably given Brady moved to a new offense after 20 years in New England as the team coped with a disrupted preseason. A roster with few obvious holes put it all together down the stretch, a feat that became more remarkable when it later emerged the ageless Brady – whose 40 passing touchdowns was the second-highest total of his remarkable career – played the whole season with a torn MCL.

After the Bucs incredibly found a way to ensure they will return all 22 starters, their head coach and both coordinators, it would be brave to bet against them at least coming close to a repeat with a fit and firing Brady showing just how comfortable he now he is in Tampa by throwing for 379 yards and four touchdowns, albeit with two interceptions, and leading a game-winning drive against the Cowboys.

The Browns, in their second year with impressive offensive mind Stefanski, continue to draft and recruit wisely under GM Andrew Berry. With star wideout Odell Beckham Jr returning from injury with a point to prove, Mayfield poised for a career year and a formidable rushing attack already in place, they will relish another shot at the Chiefs after pushing them all the way in a 22-17 Divisional Round defeat.

Ben Spratt: Watch out, Peyton – Mahomes is coming for your record!

AFC champion: Kansas City Chiefs
NFC champion: Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl champion: Kansas City Chiefs
MVP: Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs may well have been entering this season as two-time reigning champions if not for an awful Super Bowl showing from their offensive line, which allowed superstar quarterback Mahomes to be pressured 33 times by the Buccaneers.

Kansas City addressed that issue in the offseason and will hope they have now found a fix. Effective pass protection should take the Chiefs all the way and mean an outstanding regular season for Mahomes, who might even fancy a shot at Peyton Manning's single-season record of 55 touchdowns with a 17th game to play with.

That O-Line would face the ultimate test if the Rams also made the big game, however, tasked with keeping Aaron Donald away from Mahomes. It is an improvement to the Rams' own weakest element – their QB, with Matthew Stafford in for Jared Goff – that figures to bring them into contention to emerge from the NFC as they did in the 2018 season.

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  • The three Man Utd youngsters who could be breakthrough stars for Erik ten Hag The three Man Utd youngsters who could be breakthrough stars for Erik ten Hag

    Erik ten Hag is the latest boss Manchester United have turned to in their pursuit of success in the post-Alex Ferguson era.

    David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have failed to meet expectations since Ferguson's retirement in 2013, leaving Ten Hag with a difficult challenge on his hands.

    Aside from getting results right on the pitch and challenging for honours, Ten Hag also has the task of bleeding young talent into the first-team fold on a regular basis – something his predecessors have all continued to do despite their eventual failings.

    The likes of Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay have capitalised on opportunities in the past decade after rising through the club's youth ranks – and United have no shortage of players who can follow suit.

    Three players in particular are ones that Ten Hag should be keeping close tabs on, and they could become integral.

    Facundo Pellistri

    The highly rated winger has spent the past 18 months on loan in Spain with Deportivo Alaves, accumulating plenty of first-team opportunities with a total of 33 appearances across all competitions in that period, but just 11 have been as a starter.

    United may feel they can provide those limited opportunities off the bench themselves and, if utilised, can expect plenty of link-up play down the right side from Pellistri – with the majority of his final-third passes during his spell with Alaves coming in that area.

    No team in the top six of the Premier League last season scored fewer goals than United last term (57), with seventh-placed West Ham (60) and eighth-placed Leicester City (62) also bettering that tally.

    The attacking third is an area where Ten Hag needs to find more threat and Pellistri may provide that option, albeit he failed to register a goal or an assist during his spell in Spain. He created seven chances in 753 first-team minutes last season, but none of those were converted.

    With more creativity in the squad at United and better support, Pellistri should be able to improve on his direct return to register more influential moments in matches.

    James Garner

    Garner has helped turn Nottingham Forest from second-tier middlemen to a Premier League outfit – with a play-off victory against Huddersfield Town bringing an end to a 23-year wait for top-flight football.

    In Forest's promotion-winning campaign, loanee Garner was a regular fixture in the side with 41 appearances, 36 of which were as a starter, resulting in four goals and eight assists – with only Brennan Johnson, Lewis Grabban and Philip Zinckernagel being involved in more direct goal contributions.

    Seven of Garner's assists came from set-pieces, with United's overall total in 2021-22 being 10 in that regard – so Garner could play an integral part in improving that return with his deliveries from corners and free-kicks, if Bruno Fernandes can occasionally be shuffled off such duties.

    Crucially for a club like United, Garner has shown he can perform under pressure given his display in the Championship play-off final against Huddersfield – where his accuracy of 88 per cent from 48 attempted passes included completions across the field.

    Forest, understandably, are reportedly interested in bringing Garner back to the City Ground again next season in their bid to remain in the Premier League, but United will assess the 21-year-old in pre-season before making a final decision.

    Alejandro Garnacho

    Earning his senior debut for United in the Premier League clash against Chelsea in April, Garnacho's introduction to the Premier League was merely a cameo at the end of that clash.

    On the final day of the season, in a 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, Garnacho again came off the bench for an 11-minute appearance and was once more limited with his opportunity to make an impression – though that has already been done in the youth ranks.

    He scored in UEFA Youth League matches against Atalanta and Young Boys. However, it was in the FA Youth Cup where Garnacho made perhaps his biggest impact, scoring in every round bar the fourth as United lifted the trophy – with a seven-goal haul in the competition including a double in the 3-1 victory against Nottingham Forest in the final.

    With Jadon Sancho struggling for consistency down the left for United since his arrival from Borussia Dortmund, Garnacho could return to the first-team fold during the 2022-23 season.

    Opportunities could well come in the cup competitions, including the Europa League, in what will be a frantic season due to the disruption caused by the World Cup in Qatar.

  • Wimbledon: Djokovic, Nadal and Williams lead charge of the old guard Wimbledon: Djokovic, Nadal and Williams lead charge of the old guard

    When Wimbledon ended last year, there were two great takeaways from the tournament: Novak Djokovic would soon be pulling away in the grand slam title race and Ash Barty was beginning a new era of dominance.

    Both seemed to be knock-ins, and yet neither has come to pass. Djokovic missed out on a calendar Grand Slam in New York before being banished from Australia, and despite drawing level with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on 20 grand slams with his Centre Court triumph, he now finds himself two adrift of the Spaniard again.

    Barty, meanwhile, has left her own party. The then world number one stunned the tennis world by retiring in March, having added the Australian Open she so craved to her trophy cabinet.

    Djokovic and Iga Swiatek head into Wimbledon, which begins on Monday, as the top seeds.

    Stats Perform has used Opta facts to consider what the men's and women's singles might deliver.

     

    KING ROGER'S REIGN IS OVER, BUT DJOKOVIC AND NADAL KEEP GOING STRONG

    There will come a time when the Wimbledon favourite is not one of the 'Big Three'. That time is not now.

    Djokovic is the man most likely, as he targets his fourth straight Wimbledon title and seventh overall; since 2011, when he beat Nadal in the final, the Serbian has only been absent from the trophy match three times (in 2012, 2016 and 2017).

    His winning run of 21 matches at Wimbledon is the fifth-longest in the men's singles. Bjorn Borg holds the record (41 between 1976 and 1981).

    The last player other than Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray to win the Wimbledon men's title was Lleyton Hewitt in 2002. Federer is absent this year and may have played his last Wimbledon.

    Nadal has won Wimbledon twice, in 2008 and 2010. He won the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in 2010, the only season of his career when he has won three slams. This year, at the age of 36, he has the Australian and French Open trophies already locked away, potentially halfway to a calendar Grand Slam, last achieved in men's singles in 1969 by Rod Laver.

    Should Nadal pull off another major coup, it would make him only the second man in the Open Era (from 1968) to win the season's first three singles slams, after Laver in 1969 and Djokovic last year.

    Can the rest hope to compete?

    What of Murray? Well, only Federer (19), Sampras (10), Laver and Jimmy Connors (both nine) have won more ATP titles on grass than the Scot in the Open Era. If he recovers from an abdominal strain, he has a shot at reaching the second week. He will of course have the full backing of the Wimbledon crowd.

    Last year's runner-up Matteo Berrettini is fancied more than Nadal by many, having won Stuttgart and Queen's Club titles in the build-up.

    There has not been an American men's singles champion since 2000, and although the United States has six players seeded, more than any other nation, it seems a safe enough assumption we will be saying a similar thing again in 12 months' time.

    Third seed Casper Ruud has never won a singles match at Wimbledon, while fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas has not had a win since reaching the fourth round in 2018. Daniil Medvedev, the world number one, cannot compete at The All England Club after their contentious decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

    IF SERENA CAN'T CHALLENGE SWIATEK, WHO CAN?

    From the jaws of retirement, Serena Williams is back. Silence from the 40-year-old about her intentions had become almost deafening, and yet here she is, back at Wimbledon on a wildcard, hoping to rekindle the old magic.

    Because she has pushed back against the doubters for over two decades now, you have to take this seriously. Her haul of 23 grand slams is one short of Margaret Court's all-time record and Williams would dearly love to at least match it.

    Three years ago, Williams became the oldest player to reach Wimbledon's women's singles final when she lost to Simona Halep. Six years ago, she was the oldest champion when she beat Angelique Kerber.

    Only four women in the draw this year besides Williams have been champion before: Petra Kvitova (in 2011 and 2014), Garbine Muguruza (in 2017), Kerber (in 2018) and Halep (in 2019).

    World number one Iga Swiatek starts as favourite. Junior Wimbledon champion four years ago, she has scooped two women's French Open titles since then and is on a 35-match winning streak.

    After triumphing at Roland Garros in early June, Swiatek will hope to become the first woman since Kerber in 2016 (Australian Open and US Open) to win two singles slams in the same season.

    The only competitive warm-up for Williams came in two doubles matches at Eastbourne, having not played since sustaining a hamstring injury at Wimbledon last year. The seven-time champion might consider it a challenge that there has never been an unseeded Wimbledon women's singles finalist during the Open Era.

    The women's top two seeds have not met in the final since Serena faced her sister Venus in the 2002 title match, so don't hold your breath for a Swiatek versus Anett Kontaveit showpiece on July 9.

    Could Gauff be best of the rest?

    Coco Gauff made a breakthrough with her run to the French Open final. Although she was blown away by Swiatek, for the 18-year-old American it was another mark of progress. Gauff reached the fourth round in Wimbledon in 2019 (lost to Halep) and 2021 (lost to Kerber).

    Fitness is likely to be the key factor in how US Open champion Emma Raducanu fares at her home grand slam, given her injury problems. Raducanu reached the fourth round on a wildcard last year and the 19-year-old will attempt to become the first British woman to reach that stage in back-to-back seasons since Jo Durie (1984, 1985).

    Ons Jabeur, meanwhile, should not be discounted. The world number three reached the quarter-finals at SW19 last year and heads to Wimbledon having won on grass at the Berlin Open, albeit Belinda Bencic had retired hurt in the final.

    The likes of Gauff, Raducanu and 21-year-old Swiatek will attempt to become the youngest woman to lift the trophy since 17-year-old Maria Sharapova triumphed in 2004.

    A first-round exit for Swiatek would leave the event wide open, but don't count on it. In the Open Era, only three times has the top-seeded woman lost in round one: Steffi Graf in 1994 and Martina Hingis in 1999 and 2001.

  • Denmark's Euro 92 triumph: Thirty years on, the Danes have made dreamers of us all Denmark's Euro 92 triumph: Thirty years on, the Danes have made dreamers of us all

    They were the unlikeliest of all European champions and to this day remain the poster boys for all underdogs.

    Denmark, the Euro 92 winners, gave hope to generations of teams that would follow them onto the big stage.

    How could a nation with a population of a little over five million in 1992 sweep away the competition, when that competition looked so formidable?

    Michel Platini's France squad boasted Papin, Cantona, Deschamps, Blanc and Boli; Germany had Klinsmann, Hassler, Moller and World Cup final match-winner Brehme; the Netherlands fielded Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard and a young Bergkamp.

    Nobody was tipping Denmark, who were called into the tournament 10 days before it began after the expulsion of Yugoslavia, a decision taken by UEFA amid war in the Balkans.

    Denmark have given hope to teams who logically should have none. This hope has often been outrageously misplaced. The notion that 'if Denmark can do it, so can we' is a fallacy. The Danes opened the door and fantasists walked through.

    The 1992 Denmark team were a band of brothers who seized their unexpected opportunity, facing on-field and off-field challenges along the way. Thirty years since the June 26 final, we celebrate them.

    HOW ON EARTH DID THEY DO IT?

    There was little indication of what was to come when Denmark followed a 0-0 draw against England by losing 1-0 to hosts Sweden; however, a 2-1 victory over France in Malmo snapped the watching continent to attention.

    Peter Schmeichel. John Jensen. Brian Laudrup. Kim Vilfort. Torben Piechnik. The football world knew about goalkeeper Schmeichel, a year into his Manchester United career, and Laudrup was Denmark's star outfielder. But many in their side were barely known outside Denmark. Twelve of their 20 still played in the Danish league.

    Michael Laudrup was in international exile, after he and Brian quit the national team in late 1990, unimpressed with new coach Richard Moller Nielsen. Brian came back shortly before the Euros, but Barcelona forward Michael continued to give international football a swerve. Denmark got by without him.

    "We were very fortunate that we were one group of people who felt like pioneers in Danish football," Schmeichel told UEFA.com. "We felt we had responsibility to break the waves and go against the tide and prove to everyone that we can compete."

    He said it was a "myth" that the Danes had been summoned from the beach, not least because the Danish season was still in full swing.

    It was "like a funeral" in the Denmark dressing room after the England stalemate, according to Schmeichel.

    "But from that moment on we felt we were definitely in a position where we can compete in this tournament," he said.

    SLAYING THE GIANTS

    In an eight-team tournament, scraping through in second place from Group 1 meant the Danes went straight into a semi-final.

    Getting the better of the Netherlands looked beyond Denmark, given the defending champions were so strong.

    Both teams knew Germany were waiting in the final, having got the better of Sweden 3-2 in the first semi-final. The Netherlands had beaten Germany in the group stage, but their hopes of a second clash with Berti Vogts' side were to be shattered in Gothenburg.

    Henrik Larsen's double either side of a Bergkamp strike almost gave the Danes victory in 90 minutes, but Frank Rijkaard grabbed a late leveller. When it came to penalties, Schmeichel's save from Marco van Basten made all the difference, every other player scoring from the spot as Kim Christofte sealed the shoot-out success.

    In an interview at the FIFA Best awards in 2022, Schmeichel recalled how he had found inspiration in the national team from a young age.

    "I have to go back to even 1984 when Denmark lost to Spain in the semi-finals of the Euros," Schmeichel said.

    "I was in the generation that came after that and [took] the inspiration from that, and the understanding that even though we are from a small country with a limited number of people playing football, if you work hard and look for your luck, and we always produce skilful players, then there is an opportunity to create very, very good results."

    Denmark were winning their battles on the pitch, but the most important struggle was being fought away from the spotlight, with Vilfort's young daughter Line battling leukaemia.

    He missed the France game to be with his family in Copenhagen but returned to Sweden before the semi-final. A movie dramatisation of Denmark's great triumph that summer portrayed Line telling her father he should go back and join his team-mates.

    Come the June 26 final against Germany, the Danes were not alone in thinking the improbable might just be possible.

    At the Ullevi stadium, Germany began strongly but were caught out in the 18th minute when Jensen sent a sizzling strike past Bodo Illgner.

    Schmeichel and his defence defied Germany, and in the 78th minute came a magical moment for Vilfort when he found space between Brehme and Thomas Helmer before sending a low left-footed shot in off the right post, sealing a 2-0 win.

    Schmeichel said Denmark's achievement came "from not accepting we're a small country".

    "If we get the right circumstances, we can go and do whatever job we want to do, so it's more a mentality thing," he said. "I think that, more than anything, was why we won the European Championship. It was magical and unexpected."

    Coach Moller Nielsen later reflected on his sudden change of plans for June 1992.

    Moller Nielsen, who died in 2014, was quoted by UEFA as saying: "I was supposed to fit a new kitchen [in my house] but then we were called away to play in Sweden. The kitchen is finished now. I got a professional decorator to do it."

    From a hospital bed, Line Vilfort got to see her father lead Denmark to the country's greatest footballing success.

    She died a few weeks later, at the age of seven. Dad was a national hero, but this would be the cruellest of final chapters in the story of these great Danes, a personal tragedy amid a summer-long national celebration.

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