Jameis Winston starred as the New Orleans Saints opened the season with a "home" game played more than 500 miles away from the Superdome. 

In discussing his team's 38-3 pounding of the Green Bay Packers in Jacksonville, Florida, the quarterback's thoughts kept returning to New Orleans and the surrounding area.

Asked about his feelings regarding Sunday's game, Winston answered by illuminating the challenges facing the Saints' home community in the wake of Hurricane Ida, which forced the team to relocate its operations to Dallas two weeks ago. 

"We did that for them," Winston said. "We knew how much it would mean to get a victory. They've been through so much, and for us to celebrate this victory with them is amazing.

"Hats off to [the people of New Orleans] for their resilience. They inspired us to go out there and ball."

No one balled quite like Winston, who had five touchdown passes in the New Orleans rout as he made his first start for the Saints after serving as the backup to Drew Brees last season.

Winston said the Saints remained composed despite the many distractions thrown their way in recent weeks, and it paid off Sunday. 

"We were prepared. That was the message today," he said. "My trainer texted me this morning that 'pressure is for the unprepared'.

"I think that one thing we consistently did as a unit with Sean [Payton, the head coach] and with [administrative director] Jay Romig, along with our entire organization, is that despite the adversity of being in Dallas and all that we're dealing with at home, our mindset stayed the same.

"We prepared to play against Green Bay and prepared to play the best football that we could, and we did that."

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter from 2015-19, Winston refused to revel in his return to the spotlight after outshining Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. 

"Coach [Payton] says all the time that we're in a race to get better," Winston said. "We are going to celebrate this game today, but there are people dealing with way worse than me right now. There are still people in Louisiana without power.

"I'll probably reflect on it after our season is over, but right now we have to keep getting better. There's some things that I won't like when I watch the film tonight, so we still have to get better."

Next up for the Saints: a true road game Sunday at the Carolina Panthers followed by a trip to New England to face the Patriots in Week 3.

Matthew Stafford did his part in his Los Angeles Rams debut, leading his new team to a 34-14 win over the Chicago Bears.

After a dozen seasons with the hapless Detroit Lions, Stafford guided the Rams past the Bears in their season opener on Sunday.

It was exactly the type of performance the Rams had hoped for from the veteran quarterback, who completed 20 of 26 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns. 

The 33-year-old Stafford appeared in complete control from the beginning, hitting Van Jefferson for a 67-yard touchdown on the Rams' third play from scrimmage. 

After field goals on their next two drives, Los Angeles answered a David Montgomery touchdown for the Bears late in the first half with another bomb from Stafford to open the second – this one a 56-yard TD to Cooper Kupp. 

Stafford's last touchdown came on a two-yard pass to Robert Woods with 3:17 remaining after a 12-play drive that ate up nearly half the fourth quarter. 

The other veteran quarterback getting a fresh start with a new team did not fare so well. 

Andy Dalton got the start for Chicago despite a persistent clamour for rookie Justin Fields throughout training camp and went 27-for-38 passing with 206 yards. 

Dalton was intercepted in the end zone on the Bears' first drive of the game, failed to convert a fourth down on the second drive and fumbled after being sacked the next time Chicago had the ball. 

Fields did get some snaps, rushing for a three-yard touchdown that briefly cut the lead to 20-14 late in the third quarter, but all that did was further inflame the quarterback controversy that will continue to be the talk of the Windy City. 

Patrick Mahomes produced a record-breaking performance to lead the Kansas City Chiefs' rallying win over the Cleveland Browns in their NFL season opener, the star hailed by Andy Reid and Tyreek Hill.

The Chiefs faced a 12-point deficit before quarterback Mahomes fuelled a 33-29 come-from-behind victory against the Browns on Sunday.

Mahomes threw a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter for reigning AFC champions the Chiefs, including a 75-yard pass to Hill that helped close the gap.

He completed 27 of his 36 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns as the former MVP made more NFL history.

The 25-year-old broke the record for most passing yards in NFL history through the first 50 games, while he also boasts the most passing touchdowns ever through the same amount of appearances.

"That's Patrick Mahomes being Patrick Mahomes," said Chiefs team-mate Hill. "There it is."

Chiefs head coach Reid added: "You love his attitude because he always feels like we're in it.

"He does such a great job with the guys around him. He's a great communicator during tough times on the sideline."

Mahomes led the Chiefs to their ninth win in the last 11 games in which they trailed by double-digit points.

"We think we can win no matter what the situation is," Mahomes said.

"Getting that play to Tyreek kind of got the crowd back into it," Mahomes continued. "When you're at Arrowhead [Stadium] and the crowd's rolling, it gets the defence going and it kind of translates to the offence."

Sunday was eventful for the New Orleans Saints and star cornerback Marshon Lattimore. 

Hours after they opened the NFL season with a stunning 38-3 rout of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, reports emerged that Lattimore agreed to a lucrative five-year contract extension. 

NFL Network and ESPN reported the deal guarantees Lattimore at least $68.3million and could max out at $100m.

The former first round pick quote-tweeted a post about the extension from the official NFL Twitter account, adding only a money bag emoji. 

The news was not all good, though, as Lattimore injured his thumb during the game and reportedly will require surgery that could keep him out for multiple weeks. 

The 25-year-old apparently hurt himself in the first half against the Packers. 

He missed the Saints' first defensive series after half-time but returned to play with his right hand and forearm encased in a protective splint. 

Lattimore has been selected for the Pro Bowl in three of his four seasons with New Orleans and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017.

He led the NFL with five interceptions that season and has added five more picks over the last three years combined as quarterbacks have thrown fewer balls his way. 

 

Aaron Rodgers is hoping the Green Bay Packers can regroup following a "good kick in the you-know-where" in their blow-out loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Rodgers suffered the heaviest loss of his illustrious NFL career as the Packers – who have reached the NFC Championship Game in each of the last two campaigns – opened their season with a 38-3 rout at the hands of the Saints on Sunday.

After a tumultuous offseason, dominated by Rodgers' desire to leave the Packers, the reigning MVP had one of the worst outings of his career.

The superstar quarterback finished with just 133 passing yards (lowest since 2015), two interceptions and a 36.8 passer rating (lowest since 2014).

That passer rating is the lowest by a reigning NFL MVP in his first game of the subsequent season.

After the 35-point demolition, Rodgers said: "This is a good kick in the you-know-where to hopefully get us going in the right direction."

Rodgers added: "They beat us. They played way better than us. We played bad. I played bad.

"Uncharacteristic of how we've practiced in training camp, obviously how I've played over the years. This is hopefully an outlier moving forward. We'll find out next week."

"I don't even know how many stops we had on their offense the entire day," Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said.

"It was just an all-around poor performance. That starts with myself. Obviously didn't get these guys ready to play."

Just when the Cleveland Browns thought they were in position to open the NFL season with a statement win, Patrick Mahomes did what Patrick Mahomes does. 

The Kansas City Chiefs star threw for a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter as the reigning AFC champions edged the Browns 33-29 on Sunday.

Mahomes completed 27 of his 36 passes for 337 yards and three interceptions as the former MVP made more NFL history.

The 25-year-old broke the record for most passing yards in NFL history through first 50 games, while he also boasts the most passing touchdowns ever through the same amount of appearances.

Cleveland had built a 22-10 half-time lead, with Baker Mayfield directing three scoring drives that led to Nick Chubb finding the end zone twice and Jarvis Landry running in another touchdown before the break. 

Mayfield finished 21 of 28 passing for 321 yards, but had one critical mistake late. With the Browns near midfield and just over a minute to play, the Chicago quarterback scrambled to avoid pressure before throwing a pass up for grabs to the left sideline. Mike Hughes leaped to intercept the ball and the Chiefs ran out the clock from there. 

Mahomes, meanwhile, was poised as ever as he led the Chiefs to their ninth win in the last 11 games in which they trailed by double digits. 

It started with a 14-play drive to open the second half, capped by an 11-yard TD pass to his favourite target Travis Kelce. 

The signature moment, though, was a stunning 75-yard deep strike to Tyreek Hill that brought the Chiefs within two early in the fourth quarter. 

The Browns botched a punt deep in their own territory on the ensuing drive and Mahomes hit Kelce for the go-ahead touchdown three plays later. 

It was the kind of turnaround Cleveland fans have grown all too accustomed to over the years, particularly in season openers. 

The Browns have not won in Week 1 since 2004 and are now 0-16-1 since. 

Winston, Saints crush Packers

Aaron Rodgers dominated the headlines throughout the NFL offseason but he was upstaged in a big way as the season began. 

Jameis Winston threw for five touchdowns as Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers were kept from the end zone altogether in a 38-3 New Orleans Saints rout. 

Rodgers completed just 15 of 28 passes for 133 yards and threw two interceptions. He had only five interceptions all of last season on the way to being named NFL MVP for the third time.

Winston took over the starting role in New Orleans from another future Hall of Famer, the retired Drew Brees, and was brilliant at the Superdome. He completed 14 of 20 passes for 148 yards without an interception or a sack. 

In a matchup of two young quarterbacks, Tua Tagovailoa got the better of his former Alabama team-mate Mac Jones as the Miami Dolphins edged the New England Patriots 17-16 on the road.

While the rookie Jones had the better numbers of the two with 29 of 39 passing, 281 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, the Patriots repeatedly had to settle for field goals. 

Tagovailoa, meanwhile, ran one touchdown in himself and threw for another in the third quarter that provided the eventual winning margin.

Trey Lance threw his first NFL touchdown and Jimmy Garoppolo excelled but the San Francisco 49ers were forced to hold off a near-miraculous rally from the Detroit Lions in a 41-33 thriller.

Rookie third overall pick Lance was not able to win the starting quarterback job from Garoppolo, yet he still made his regular-season debut at Ford Field on Sunday, and he took his first snap with the Niners on the Detroit 16-yard line on their second drive of the day.

His second snap saw him hit Trent Sherfield for a five-yard touchdown pass and, though Detroit responded with Jared Goff connecting with tight end T.J. Hockenson, Garoppolo's 314-yard performance, which included a 79-yard touchdown throw to Deebo Samuel, scores on the ground from rookie Elijah Mitchell and JaMycal Hasty and a Dre Greenlaw pick-six appeared to have put the game beyond all doubt.

San Francisco led 41-17 with under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but a Jamaal Williams short-yardage plunge followed by a two-point conversion provided Detroit a glimmer of hope that grew brighter when George Kittle was unable to field an onside kick.

The Lions subsequently drove down the field and Goff found Quintez Cephus for a two-yard touchdown and another two-point conversion. They then had a chance to tie the game following a fumble from Samuel, but Detroit could not complete an incredible comeback to force overtime.

Samson Ebukam's pressure forced Goff into an errant throw, allowing the Niners to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

It was, however, a pyrrhic victory for San Francisco, who lost cornerback Jason Verrett to what head coach Kyle Shanahan believes is a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Though the 49ers took defensive starters out of the game following Verrett's injury with what eventually proved an insurmountable lead, the ease with which the Lions moved the ball late in the game should be of concern to San Francisco, especially with two of their NFC West rivals enjoying excellent days.

The Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks each won comfortably. Kyler Murray threw for four touchdowns and ran for another while defensive end Chandler Jones had five sacks in the Cardinals' easy 38-13 win over the Tennessee Titans, while Russell Wilson had four touchdown passes for the Seahawks as they saw off the Indianapolis Colts 28-16.

Steelers stun Bills

While not quite as dramatic as events in Detroit, the Pittsburgh Steelers' win over the Buffalo Bills at Orchard Park was certainly unexpected.

The Bills led 10-0 at the end of the first half, but Josh Allen was sacked three times as the Steelers held a usually explosive offense in check.

And, after a pair of field goals from Chris Boswell, Diontae Johnson's spectacular catch at the back of the endzone in the fourth quarter gave them a lead they would not relinquish.

Ulysees Gilbert III recovered a blocked punt to make it 19-10 Steelers, Mike Tomlin's men going on to close out a 23-16 win that deals an early blow to a Bills team seen as Super Bowl contenders.

Burrow makes winning return

Last year's number one overall pick Joe Burrow made his return from a serious knee injury in the Cincinnati Bengals' clash with the Minnesota Vikings, and it proved a successful one in a thriller at Paul Brown Stadium.

He connected with college team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, the fifth overall pick by the Bengals this year, for a 50-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give Cincinnati a lead that they eventually let slip late in the fourth quarter when Vikings kicker Greg Joseph tied matters at 24-24 with a 53-yard field goal.

That forced overtime, but a Dalvin Cook fumble in Bengals territory handed Burrow and the Bengals the chance to clinch it, and he did just that with a drive that set up Evan McPherson's 33-yard field goal and sealed a 27-24 success.

This year's number one overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, endured a very different day. He threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns with three interceptions as the Jacksonville Jaguars were beaten 37-21 by the Houston Texans.

On Sunday, four of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round of this year's NFL Draft will take the field for their debuts.

A quintet of franchises capitalised on what many considered to be an historic class at the position to select the prospects they hope will prove to be the long-term future of their respective teams.

However, so much of a quarterback's success is dependent on situation and it is likely the quarterback from this crop of rookies that initially stands out will be the one with the best supporting cast around them.

The consensus is that Trey Lance, the third overall pick of the San Francisco 49ers, is in the best spot. For now, he will have to play second fiddle to Jimmy Garoppolo and settle for only sporadic action as the Niners look to make use of his running threat.

When Lance does take over full-time, he will be playing the most important position on a roster that was seven minutes from Super Bowl glory two seasons ago.

While he may have landed in the most favourable scenario, 11th overall pick Justin Fields appears to have been dealt the worst hand, with the Chicago Bears unwilling to risk putting him out there in Week 1 with a talent-poor offense against the Los Angeles Rams despite a strong preseason.

Do the numbers back up the statements that Lance is in the best situation with Fields in the worst? And where do Trevor Lawrence, first overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson and New England Patriots starter Mac Jones stack up in terms of supporting cast?

Stats Perform analysed its advanced metrics to find out.

RUNNING GAME

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jaguars 4. Jets 5. Bears

The running game can be an excellent safety net that takes the pressure off a quarterback's shoulders.

Rushing the ball effectively is contingent on an offensive line that can open the holes and a back that can not only take advantage of those lanes but also create for himself.

In terms of run blocking, the Patriots are the standouts among the teams to select a signal-caller. Second in Stats Perform's projected offensive line rankings, put together using combined run blocking and pass protection data over the past three seasons, only two offensive lines league begin the season better prepared to provide the foundation for a successful ground game than that of New England.

Led by center David Andrews - whose run disruption rate allowed of 5.3 per cent was the best in the NFL at his position - and right guard Shaq Mason (6.3%), the Patriots' O-Line is one that should continue to excel at creating running lanes.

Damien Harris showed his ability to take advantage of those lanes last season when he averaged 3.11 yards before contact from a defender, 10th in the NFL, while making things happen for himself with 3.15 yards per carry on attempts where there was a run disruption from a defender.

When Jones makes his first start against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, he should have full confidence in being able to lean on Harris and the line to make his life easier.

The 49ers, whose starting running back Raheem Mostert averaged 3.28 yards before contact last season, might have a strong case for having the top running game should Lance's dual-threat ability take their ground attack to the next level.

Third-round pick Trey Sermon (4.85 yards before contact, 2.77 yards after contact for Ohio State in 2020) could prove an astute selection, though an offensive line 18th in run blocking in Stats Perform's rankings will need to take a step forward.

Still, their position is significantly more favourable than that of the Bears, who rank last in run blocking, making David Montgomery's 1,000-yard 2020 season all the more surprising.

Yet Montgomery was below the league average in yards before contact (2.54 per attempt) and after contact (1.84), hardly inspiring confidence that he can lighten the load on Fields when the Bears finally commit to him as the starter.

PASS CATCHERS

1. 49ers 2. Patriots 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

There isn't much use investing in a potential franchise quarterback if you cannot put weapons around him upon whom he can rely.

In terms of players he can target and trust, Lance has the edge over his fellow rookies, though no team to take a quarterback in the first round landed in the top half of Stats Perform's rankings by collective open percentage.

The Niners landed 18th on that list but conventional wisdom says they will be much higher should tight end George Kittle and top wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk stay healthy.

All three endured injury-hindered 2020 seasons, though Kittle still led all tight ends in adjusted open percentage (45.03%). He was first among tight ends with 3.9 burn yards per route (a burn is a target where the receiver wins his matchup with a defender).

Samuel's burn yards per route rate of 3.0 was particularly eye-catching because his average depth of target of 2.3 was the lowest in the NFL, the former second-round pick showing his skills with ball in hand with 12.1 yards after the catch per reception, best in the NFL.

Aiyuk, meanwhile, produced a big play on 33.1 per cent of his targets, third among rookie receivers with at least 50 targets, a breakout year appears on the horizon for the second-year wideout.

With an elite tight end and two promising wideouts, the Niners' situation is substantially better than Jacksonville's. The Jaguars' pass-catchers ranked last by collective open percentage.

Late free-agent addition Tyron Johnson is the sole wide receiver on the Jaguars' roster to have posted a burn percentage above the average of 62.5 per cent last year.

Johnson did so on 69.2 per cent of his targets and was first in burn yards per target (19.89) and second in burn yards per route (3.6) with an average depth of target of 20 yards.

This evidently skilled deep separator will be tasked with stretching opposing defenses while D.J. Chark (30.33% adjusted open) and Laviska Shenault (27.44%) must do a better job of beating coverage and taking advantage of the stress Johnson can put on opponents to lift this group from the cellar and give Lawrence more to work with.

PASS BLOCKING

1. Patriots 2. Jets 3. Jaguars 4. 49ers 5. Bears

Though most accept Fields is the most exciting quarterback on the Bears' roster, Matt Nagy's decision to not start him and protect him from an offensive line that can hardly protect anyone may be an astute one with Chicago facing Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the Rams Week 1.

Eventually, Fields will have to take his lumps. There are good defensive players across the NFL by which he will one day be confronted, but a reticence to put him out there behind a line ranked 30th in pass protection by Stats Perform is understandable.

Starting left tackle Jason Peters is 39 and allowed a pressure rate of 12.4 per cent last term, the 10th-worst in the league. The interior of the line is also a substantial concern.

Right guard James Daniels is coming off a year where he gave up a pressure on 11.3 per cent of pass protection snaps. Cody Whitehair is at left guard having played center in 2020, when only three players at his former position allowed a higher adjusted sack rate than his 1.9 per cent. One of those players was this year's starting center Sam Mustipher (2.3%).

While Fields would have the NFL equivalent of a turnstile in front of him. Jones will head on the Gillette Stadium field with an O-Line that is the definition of solidity.

Though not quite the brick wall he had the benefit of at Alabama, the Patriots' line should provide Jones with excellent protection, ranking fifth in pass blocking.

Mike Onwenu ranked as the best pass-protecting left guard in the NFL and in Trent Brown, credited with one adjusted sack allowed on 162 pass-block snaps in his final season with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Isaiah Wynn, the Patriots have a solid pair of tackles to give Jones the time to prove his pre-draft doubters wrong.

The left side of the Jets' line could rival that of the Patriots. Mekhi Becton's pressure rate allowed of 5.5 per cent was ninth among left tackles in 2020. On his inside shoulder, rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker conceded only five pressures on 387 pass protection snaps the last time he played that spot for USC in 2019. Wilson can afford to have great faith in that duo.

DEFENSE

1. 49ers 2. Bears 3. Patriots 4. Jets 5. Jaguars

Defense is often neglected when it comes to talking about a quarterback's supporting cast but, if a team has one that can stifle opposing attacks, it leaves more wiggle room for a young quarterback to endure the 'rookie mistakes' and not sink his team's chances of competing.

Lance's performances during the preseason, while exciting, indicated he is a quarterback who could be a little turnover-prone as he adapts to reading defenses at the NFL level.

San Francisco's is a defense that is strong up front and better than given credit for in the secondary. The 49ers ranked eighth in pass coverage grade, which was produced by multiplying each player's coverage baseline by a projected target share for 2021 with the results then aggregated at the team level.

On the front, Stats Perform projected the average Niners defender to produce a pressure on 11.5 per cent of pass rush attempts, putting them fourth in the NFL.

Though there is great depth on the defensive line, much of that projection is built on Nick Bosa, getting back to his Defensive Rookie of the Year levels of 2019, when he had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent, after suffering a torn ACL in Week 2 last year. With Bosa healthy and Fred Warner the premier all-round linebacker in the NFL, the Niners have a defense that could help them contend amid bumps in the road for Lance.

The Bears don't have many areas where they can be considered to be the best in the NFL, yet their front seven has a strong claim. The average Chicago pass rusher is projected to produce a pressure on 11.4% of pass rush attempts and the average run defender is forecast to cause a run disruption 10.2% of the time.

While Chicago's front may be well-rounded, their secondary looks extremely shaky, as illustrated by the Bears' ranking of 22nd in pass coverage grade. Jaylon Johnson enjoyed an encouraging rookie season at corner yet, with Kindle Vildor set to start across from him having only started one game in his brief career, there is clear a potential weakness for opponents to target.

The Patriots have no such problems on the back end, at least when the absent Stephon Gilmore is on the field. New England are seventh in coverage grade, and with linebacker D'Onta Hightower returning and the addition of edge rusher Matthew Judon, they will hope their front seven can dramatically outperform the projection of a pressure from a defender on just 9.51% of attempts.

New York's pass rush suffered a substantial blow when free agent signing Carl Lawson, who had a pressure rate of 22.3% that was seventh in the NFL last season, was lost for the year due to a ruptured Achilles. Without him, the average Jets defender is predicted to cause pressure 10.34% of the time, and there is an even greater onus on defensive tackle Quinnen Williams to carry his 2020 emergence into this year.

The Jets' hopes of the defense offering support to Wilson may be dashed should the front prove unable to lift a secondary bereft of talent beyond safety Marcus Maye, New York entering the season 23rd in pass coverage grade.

A lack of pass-rushing options beyond Josh Allen, who took a step back in an injury-affected 2020, contributed to the Jaguars' mediocre projected pressure rate of 10.18% and, with Jacksonville just above the Jets and Bears in 21st in coverage grade, they need cornerback Shaquill Griffin to live up to his lucrative free agency pricetag to elevate the play in the defensive backfield and ensure Lawrence is not tasked with coming through a shootout every week.

OVERALL

1. Patriots 2. 49ers 3. Jets 4. Bears 5. Jaguars

Aided by an offensive line that excels in both facets, a running back seemingly primed for a breakout year and a defense restocked with players returning from opt-outs and quality free agents, Jones will head into his NFL debut with the top supporting cast of any of the rookies.

The most important thing in Jones' favour, though, is his head coach, as he will benefit from playing for the greatest coach of all-time in Bill Belichick, whose incredible expertise on the defensive side of the ball should prove a significant help to the former Alabama star as he adapts to different looks from opponents.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan's play-calling acumen will give Lance an advantage most quarterbacks in the league do not enjoy when he hits the field, with the weapons they boast on both sides of the ball meaning he will likely take over a team headed for the playoffs when he eventually displaces Garoppolo.

Wilson has the luxury of playing for two Shanahan disciples in head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. The early signs have been promising in terms of him settling into LaFleur's offense but Saleh will need to do a particularly impressive coaching job on defense to turn them into a unit capable of making Wilson's life easier.

Fields may get help in that respect from the defensive front and will have one of the most underrated wide receivers in the NFL in Allen Robinson. He and Lawrence were deemed by many to be the best quarterbacks in the 2021 class, however, due to the holes on both sides of their respective rosters, it is they who have the most obstacles to immediate success in front of them.

Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Odell Beckham Jr, Nick Chubb. Sunday's enticing playoff rematch between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns at Arrowhead Stadium is one swimming with star names.

Yet the X-factor of a matchup that could prove pivotal in the AFC postseason race may be a right tackle who has not played an NFL regular-season game.

Chiefs offensive lineman Lucas Niang opted out of the 2020 season but now has been entrusted with helping protect Patrick Mahomes.

In fairness to Niang, he is not alone in being an inexperienced player on a Kansas City O-Line remodelled after the Chiefs gave up 33 pressures in their Super Bowl LV loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Chiefs are set to start two rookies on the interior of the line in center Creed Humphrey, a second-round pick, and sixth-round selection Trey Smith.

But Niang, who is for all intents and purposes a rookie after his decision not to play last year, is the player with the most difficult task.

On the right side of the line, he will be tasked with shutting down the Cleveland Browns' left defensive end, Myles Garrett.

Sixth in sacks since entering the league as the consensus best player in the 2017 draft with 42.5 in 51 games, Garrett has established himself as one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL.

His pressure rate last year was 21.5 per cent, a drop-off from a 2019 season when he posted a 26.7% pressure rate that was eighth among edge rushers with at least 200 snaps at that position in a Defensive Player of the Year calibre campaign ended by suspension.

In other words, Niang will be facing an elite pass rusher who, unlike last season, has had the benefit of a full offseason.

There is only a limited sample size to judge Niang's ability to keep Garrett in check, though the numbers from his last college season at TCU in 2019 are encouraging.

He allowed nine pressures on 126 pass protection snaps and was not credited with giving up a single adjusted sack.

With the size and arm length to lock on to pass rushers, theoretically Niang has the tools he needs to nullify defenders as he did in college.

Yet, Garrett represents a massive step up from what Niang faced at TCU. As such, expect him to receive plenty of assistance against Garrett from tight end Kelce and from running backs when they are drafted in to help in protection.

Garrett had seven pressures, his fifth-most in any 2020 game, and a sack in the Browns' 22-17 playoff loss to the Chiefs. However, he is a player who can decimate bad offensive lines, as evidenced by his 15 pressures against the Cincinnati Bengals last year.

The challenge for Niang is to prevent him from having such a telling impact. His success in doing so will have a significant influence on the Chiefs' ability to maintain superiority over one of their key AFC rivals.

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.

The NFL returned in spectacular fashion on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers edged the Dallas Cowboys in a thriller.

It is a remarkable appetiser to the main course of Week 1, which sees 14 more games on Sunday and another on Monday between the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders.

There is a mouth-watering playoff rematch to behold at Arrowhead Stadium, while a clutch of rookie quarterbacks will attempt to make sure their first steps in the league are successful ones.

Ahead of what should be an enthralling opening week, Stats Perform looks at some of the most interesting facts from Sunday's biggest games.

Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs

Revenge will be on the minds of the Browns in the most enticing matchup of the opening week, Cleveland aiming to upset the odds after falling short against the Chiefs in the Divisional Round of last season's playoffs.

History, though, is firmly against Cleveland. The Chiefs have won three straight games against the Browns dating back to 2013, while Andy Reid is 7-0 in his career as a head coach versus the Browns, one of three teams he is undefeated against. The others are the Chiefs (3-0) and his former team the Philadelphia Eagles (2-0).

Kevin Stefanski led the Browns to an 11-5 record in 2020, his first year as an NFL head coach. It was the most wins in a season by the Browns since 1994 (also 11 wins). The last time the Browns won at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons was 1986 to 1988 (three straight).

The Chiefs set a franchise record with 14 wins in 2020 and played in the Super Bowl for the second straight season, with Kansas City the favourites to be the AFC's representative in the February showpiece yet again. Only three teams have ever made the Super Bowl in three straight seasons – the Buffalo Bills (four, 1990-93), New England Patriots (three, 2016-18) and Miami Dolphins (three, 1971-73).

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills

The Bills were a game away from the Super Bowl last season and enter this clash between a new AFC heavyweight and a seemingly fading force on a regular-season winning streak.

In a campaign that saw them go 13-3 and post their best record since 1991, the Bills finished the regular season with six straight wins averaging an NFL-best 38.2 points during that span.

Pittsburgh began last season 11-0, then dropped four of their last five games, finishing with an opening-round exit to the Browns in the playoffs. The Steelers were the first team to start 11-0 since the 2015 Carolina Panthers.

And the Steelers will be looking to avoid a third straight defeat to the Bills, who made it two successive wins over Pittsburgh with last season's 26-15 victory in Week 14. The Steelers had won nine of the previous 10 meetings dating back to 1993. 

Green Bay Packers @ New Orleans Saints

The Drew Brees era is over for the Saints, who have selected Jameis Winston as his successor at quarterback. The Packers have a talented defense but the often-erratic Winston's past form suggests he should move the ball against them. Winston has averaged 12.62 yards per completion over his career, the highest mark by any QB who has debuted in the past 30 years (minimum 1,500 completions).

Two perennial NFC powers, games between New Orleans and Green Bay have been consistently high-scoring affairs. The Saints and Packers have combined to average 52.0 points per game in their 26 all-time meetings, the highest average between any two NFL teams who have met at least 20 times.

Green Bay won 13 games in each of the last two seasons but failed to make the Super Bowl in either one. The Packers joined the 2018-19 Saints as the only teams in the Super Bowl era to win 13+ games in back-to-back seasons but miss the Super Bowl in both.

Elsewhere...

It will be a season partially defined by the performance of the rookie quarterbacks, with four of the five drafted in the first round seemingly set to feature in Week 1.

The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with their first-ever number one overall pick. When he lines up against the Houston Texans, Lawrence will be the eighth different QB to start a season opener for the Jaguars since 2010, tied for second most in the NFL behind the Browns (nine). 

Second overall pick Zach Wilson is set to become the 49th starting quarterback in New York Jets history when they face the Carolina Panthers and his predecessor Sam Darnold. No Jets quarterback has started every game of a season since Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015, which happens to be the last time the Jets had a winning record (10-6).

Trey Lance will likely see sporadic action for the San Francisco 49ers versus the Detroit Lions. However, if Jimmy Garoppolo's spotty injury history continues in 2021, Lance could soon become the undisputed starter. Garoppolo was limited to six games last season. In three of the games, Garoppolo passed for multiple touchdowns with no interceptions. In the other three, Garoppolo had no touchdown passes and at least one interception.

The New England Patriots have used just four starting quarterbacks in their season openers since 2000, with Mac Jones poised to be the fifth as he looks to become the long-term successor to Tom Brady. Only the Packers (two) and Saints (three) have had fewer season-opening starters in that span – the NFL average in that time is 7.5 quarterbacks.

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.

Tom Brady was grateful for Ryan Succop's last-gasp field goal as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened the 2021 NFL season with a dramatic win over the Dallas Cowboys.

The Bucs' Super Bowl defence looked set to begin with a loss as they trailed 29-28 with seven seconds remaining in Thursday's opening-night thriller at Raymond Jones Stadium.

But inspired by seven-time Super Bowl winner Brady, the hosts edged a see-saw battle 31-29 thanks to Succop's game-winning kick in the dying seconds.

After surviving a scare against the Cowboys, Brady accepts there is plenty of work for his side to do.

"The margin of error is thin in the NFL," he said. "One or two plays, it's always that's the way the game goes. Fortunately, we found a way to win. 

"I'm really happy Ryan and the field goal team made that really clutch kick there at the end. That was great to see. But as a team, we all know we've got to get back to work.

"We won, it's great, but we know that it was far from perfect and we have to get back to work and clean a lot of stuff up."

Brady completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards against the Cowboys and passed Drew Brees for most career passing touchdowns in season openers in NFL history with 43.

Cowboys counterpart Dak Prescott, making his comeback from a long lay-off, was 42-for-58 passing, with 403 yards, three TDs and one interception.

Prescott has now had 400-plus yards in four games since the start of last season – the most by any player in the NFL.

But from the Bucs' perspective, it was far from a vintage performance as they committed 11 penalties for 106 yards and converted just two of six third-down tries.

"We've got a lot a lot to learn," head coach Bruce Arians said. "I'm obviously not pleased with the start of the game, though I loved the finish. 

"Our guys are winning. They're going to finish and we're going to win, but we can play better and not put ourselves in that situation."

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won an opening-night thriller in the NFL, the Super Bowl champions overcoming the Dallas Cowboys 31-29 thanks to a field goal with two seconds remaining.

The Cowboys led 29-28 with seven seconds on the clock at Raymond Jones Stadium – the home of the Buccaneers and the scene of their Super Bowl LV triumph in February.

But after Brady led an 11-play, 57-yard drive, Ryan Succop stepped up to convert the last-gasp field goal as the Buccaneers opened the 2021 season with a win.

It was another memorable outing for seven-time Super Bowl champion Brady (43), who passed Drew Brees for most career passing touchdowns in season openers in NFL history.

Brady completed 32 of 50 passes for 379 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions as the 44-year-old quarterback fuelled the Buccaneers.

Cowboys counterpart Dak Prescott – back on the field for the first time since his season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 of the 2020 season – was 42-for-58 passing, with 403 yards, three TDs and one interception.

Prescott has had 400-plus yards in four games since the start of last season – the most by any player in the NFL.

The Buccaneers and Cowboys traded touchdowns in the opening quarter – Brady finding Chris Godwin before Prescott's 22-yard pass was caught by CeeDee Lamb inside the final two minutes.

Brady and Rob Gronkowski connected for a touchdown as the Buccaneers reclaimed the lead and while Prescott's TD pass to Amari Cooper and a Greg Zuerlein field goal put Dallas ahead, Tampa Bay had the last say before half-time – Antonio Brown on the end of a 47-yard throw.

There was history made in the third quarter as Brady and Gronkowski combined for their 100th touchdown, the star pair joining Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (114) in the 100 club.

With his 22nd career game with multiple receiving TDs, Gronkowski broke a tie with Antonio Gates for most games by a tight end in the Super Bowl era and moved into a tie for sixth in any position.

Dallas only trailed 28-26 entering the final period thanks to Cooper's second TD and the visitors took the lead with just over a minute remaining via another Zuerlein field goal, but Succop and the Buccaneers were not to be denied.

The consensus in recent years has become that the very best in the NFL predominantly reside in the AFC. It is a claim that is difficult to argue, given the Kansas City Chiefs' emergence as the most explosive team in the league, the rise of the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns and the consistency of the Baltimore Ravens with their dynamic running game.

Yet, in terms of sheer depth, the NFC might have the edge. It may be tough to look beyond the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and too many find teams that can legitimately hope to be lifting the Lombardi Trophy come February, but this is a conference swimming with playoff calibre competitors.

That plethora of contenders will all be hoping to topple Tom Brady and the Buccaneers after they crushed the Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV to claim their second title in franchise history.

The Bucs are still the unquestioned class of the conference, but who are teams with the best shot of usurping them and playing in Super Bowl LVI in February? Stats Perform attempts to answer that question as we preview the NFC ahead of Tampa Bay's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Favourites

With Brady's arm seemingly somehow getting stronger in his mid-40s – he averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt, the fourth-most in the NFL, in 2020 – and the Bucs doing an excellent job of retaining a host of free agents that formed the core of their championship roster, Tampa Bay stand as the clear favourites to be the NFC's Super Bowl representative.

Yet it is important to remember the Green Bay Packers and MVP Aaron Rodgers were perhaps just a fourth-down conversion in the red zone away from knocking off Brady and the Bucs in last year's NFC title game. Save for departed center Corey Linsley and injured left tackle David Bakhtiari – not insignificant absentees – Rodgers will have predominantly the same supporting cast as he had last year, including Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) last term.

The pressure is on defense that forced only 72 negative plays (tied 26th) last term to provide assistance reflective of the talent the Packers have on that side of the ball.

Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams have rarely had to worry about getting impactful defensive contributions. Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald is coming off a year that saw him post a monstrous pressure rate of 28.2 per cent while Jalen Ramsey is still one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league.

If the defense can continue to thrive without coordinator Brandon Staley – who will coach in the same stadium but as the head man with the Chargers – and the marriage of new quarterback Matthew Stafford and innovative play-caller McVay proves successful, the Rams could be the team that defies Brady having failed to do so against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.

In the mix

The San Francisco 49ers were seven minutes away from ending the 2019 season with triumph in Super Bowl LIV, only to be undone by a stunning late barrage from Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Their hopes of going one better were decimated by a relentless wave of injuries, however, the Niners are healthy going into this season and offer one of the deepest rosters in the NFL along with the league's most compelling quarterback situation.

It is unclear when rookie third overall pick Trey Lance – an exciting dual-threat quarterback who tallied 42 total touchdowns and no interceptions in his only full season of college football at North Dakota State – will be ready to take over from Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet, as long as one of their quarterbacks can elevate a talented cast of skill-position players and an extremely well-stocked defense that gets edge rusher Nick Bosa – 28.3 per cent pressure rate in 2019 – back from a torn ACL can stay in the league's top 10, San Francisco will be a threat.

The Niners do have the inconvenience of being in the same division as the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, whose head coach Pete Carroll may be starting to feel the pressure to deliver with his team having consistently reached the playoffs but failed to go beyond the Divisional Round since their Super Bowl loss at the end of 2014 season.

Seattle do not possess a roster as well-rounded as that of the Niners, yet quarterback Russell Wilson is one who can keep them in any game. Wilson, and therefore the Seahawks, cannot be counted out.

The Dallas Cowboys are more of a longshot and their defense is one ill-prepared to go deep into the postseason. Still, in a league where offense is king, the Cowboys have the attack – provided Dak Prescott is healthy – to outduel opponents having put up 509.5 net yards per game before their quarterback's 2020 season was ended by injury in Week 5.

Sleeper team to watch – Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons appear to be a franchise resisting the reality staring them in the face. Having replaced Dan Quinn with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Falcons had the chance to get a jump-start on a rebuild by taking a quarterback with the fourth overall pick in the draft as the successor to the 36-year-old Matt Ryan.

Instead, the Falcons settled on Florida's stud tight end Kyle Pitts, a move more in keeping with a team ready to win now. With Pitts, who won his matchup with a defender on 70.1 per cent of targets in 2020, joining Ryan and an already talented cast of pass-catchers, the Falcons arguably have an offense that can score at a rate to keep them in the mix.

Wide receiver Calvin Ridley is one of the most dynamic weapons in the conference who racked up 1,374 receiving yards (tied fifth in the NFL) last year. Having to defend both Ridley and Pitts will present a massive dilemma for opposing defenders and, if blitz-heavy new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees can improve a unit that was tied-20th in the NFL last year with 29 sacks for negative yardage, Atlanta could have the ingredients for a successful season.

The Falcons are stuck in a void between wanting to contend and needing to rebuild. Should the success Smith had as a play-caller in Tennessee continue in Atlanta, their dreams of contention could be realised.

Best Division – NFC West

The biggest barrier to the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers posting a record to put themselves in the conversation for the number one seed in the conference is that they all reside in the same division, one which also contains an Arizona Cardinals team that was 6-3 at one point last campaign before collapsing to an 8-8 record.

With the Cardinals possessing one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in the form of Kyler Murray and an All-Pro wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, the NFC West is a division that houses four playoff calibre teams as well as arguably the two best play-callers in the game in McVay and 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Blowouts in the division are rare and all four have proven in recent times that they can deal damaging blows to each other. As this quartet feels the pressure to make the postseason, they promise to produce some of the most fascinating matchups of 2021.

Worst Division – NFC East

The East is the antithesis of the West, with four flawed teams and questionable quarterback situations for every team except Dallas.

Prescott's injury helped the Washington Football Team reach the playoffs with a 7-9 record in 2020, illustrating just how far what was once seen as the league's glamour division has fallen.

Washington will have the entertaining but erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback while New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones and his offensive line look ill-prepared to propel them to the playoffs. Jalen Hurts brings dual-threat intrigue for the Philadelphia Eagles, yet theirs is a roster that likely has too many holes for him to overcome.

This is a division that will likely hinge on Prescott's ability to stay healthy and the performance of Washington's young and talented defense, but do not expect it to be an entertaining battle.

MVP Candidates

His offseason staring contest with the Packers in the rearview mirror, Rodgers will be in the running for his fourth MVP award should Green Bay again go deep into the playoffs and he replicates a 2020 campaign that saw him deliver an accurate well-thrown ball on 82.4 per cent of attempts, the third-highest ratio in the league.

Aaron Donald perennially loses out to quarterbacks, and it is tough to see what else the Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle can do to put himself over the top. Donald led the league with a remarkable pressure rate of 28.2 per cent in 2020 as he took home Defensive Player of Year honours.

His new team-mate Stafford could be in the mix if the former Detroit Lion proves the major upgrade on Jared Goff many expect him to be while Wilson will surely have a compelling claim if the Seahawks offense can sustain the level that saw Seattle lead the league with 298.1 net passing yards per game last year from Week 1 to Week 9 in 2020 for the entire season.

The elephant looming over the conference, though, is Brady and the Bucs, whose offense took over the league in the final four weeks of last season season, Brady enjoying a deep-ball renaissance that, if it carries into 2021 and Tampa remain best in the NFC class, will make him a tough candidate to beat.

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.