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We are now through nine weeks of the 2021 NFL season, which means we’re officially at the midway point. And with roughly two months still to play in the regular season and at least eight games still on the schedule for all 32 teams, a lot can happen. Only a few teams are truly out of the playoff hunt at this point, and multiple players are on track to challenge league records with huge seasons. The stretch run promises to be exciting, and if last weekend’s big upsets were any indication, it will have plenty of surprises.
So we asked 15 of our NFL analysts for their best prediction for the rest of the season and how it will play out. Will we see shocking division winners and playoff teams? Which teams will earn the No. 1 seeds in each conference? Will stars enter the record books? Will one team set a draft record, and will another produce multiple award winners?
Let’s predict the final nine weeks, starting with a fantastic finish for one of the game’s top pass-catchers.
Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp will finish in the top two of all time for receiving yards in a season — and flirt with the record
At his current pace, Kupp would finish the year at 1,925 receiving yards, just short of Calvin Johnson’s record of 1,964 set in 2012. But he might just surpass it due to his incredibly high usage rate in the Rams’ offense (though Odell Beckham Jr. could steal some of his targets). Quarterback Matthew Stafford has targeted Kupp at least 10 times in eight of Los Angeles’ nine games. The duo quickly developed chemistry in the offseason, and it’s paying off in 2021, with Kupp leading the NFL in receptions (74), yards (1,019) and receiving touchdowns (10).
And even if he doesn’t eclipse Johnson’s 1,964 — remember, he has an extra game to work with — Kupp will beat out Julio Jones’ 1,871 yards (2015), which currently ranks No. 2 all time. — Jeremy Fowler, NFL writer/reporter
Quarterback Russell Wilson might be playing his final months in Seattle (we’ll have to wait until the offseason to find out), but there are few players as determined as he is to cement their legacy as a winner. The Seahawks haven’t looked good so far, but the remaining schedule includes tasty matchups against the likes of Washington, Houston, Detroit and Chicago. If they can beat Green Bay this week and split games with Arizona, I like the Seahawks’ chances of running down some of the Atlanta/New Orleans types in the wild-card hunt and making the playoffs for the ninth time in Wilson’s 10 years there. — Dan Graziano, NFL writer/reporter
Yup, I totally agree. There are two teams in the NFL with a point differential between plus-10 and plus-20 and an elite quarterback at the helm: the 7-2 Packers and the 3-5 Seahawks. We tend think about those two teams very differently, but I’m not sure we should. Seattle’s third-down conversion rate is an absurdly low 31% (No. 31 in the NFL) despite an only slightly above-average 7.1-yard distance to go required. Those are high-leverage plays, and I have to believe the conversion rate will improve going forward, given their offensive talent.
And while the bottom of the NFC playoff battle is crowded, none of the Vikings, 49ers, Eagles, Falcons or Panthers are particularly scary. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) is currently giving the Seahawks a 31.0% chance of pulling it off. — Seth Walder, analytics writer
Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year will both come from the Indianapolis Colts
Running back Jonathan Taylor and linebacker Darius Leonard will each pick up some personal hardware for the Colts. Taylor has a clear path to leading the NFL in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, while Leonard’s on-ball production is nearly unmatched among linebackers. Taylor, the team’s second-year back, has 821 rushing yards and eight rushing scores, and he has scored at least once in every game since September. Leonard, meanwhile, has 67 tackles, four forced fumbles (and two recoveries), eight passes defended and a pair of interceptions.
This is predicated upon Indy hanging in the race for the AFC South and AFC wild-card picture, which I also believe will happen. — Field Yates, NFL analyst
Cleveland is 5-4 and tied for last in the AFC North, but this team is too good on paper to fall short of the tournament. The Browns sit 12th in ESPN’s FPI and sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, despite dealing with a laundry list of injuries, including starting corners Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II, running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. (who has since been waived), tackles Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr., linebackers Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and even QB Baker Mayfield.
Cleveland’s remaining schedule isn’t a walk in the park, but this team has the firepower for a run to the playoffs … and perhaps more. — Mike Clay, NFL analyst
Dan Orlovsky details what he saw from Baker Mayfield without Odell Beckham Jr. on the field.
I agree with Mike, and I’ll take it a step further. The Browns are very defined in what they do, from both an offensive and defensive perspective. We can point to the run game here, behind the league’s best interior offensive front. Or the schemed throws for Mayfield off play-action. And we are also looking at a Browns defense that can play with zone discipline in the back seven while getting pressure from its front four.
To me, this is a football team with the necessary elements to make a push in the second half of the season. The FPI is currently giving the Browns a 50.5% chance of making the playoffs, and a 19.0% chance of winning the AFC North. — Matt Bowen, NFL analyst
Chase will have a legitimate chance to break several rookie wide receiver records. He is averaging 7.4 targets, 4.8 receptions, 98.2 receiving yards and 0.9 touchdowns per game this season, putting him on pace to challenge a number of rookie records. That includes receptions (Anquan Boldin had 101 in 2003), receiving yards (Bill Groman had 1,473 yards in 1960) and touchdown catches (Randy Moss had 17 in 1998).
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Chase is currently pacing toward 1,577 yards, which would move him past Groman for the most all time among rookies. But he will need to pick it up a bit when it comes to receptions and TDs, where he is tracking toward 83 and 13, respectively.
Since quarterback Joe Burrow and Chase spent time together at LSU, their rapport and chemistry is undeniable. It would make sense if they utilized it to their advantage given Cincinnati’s middle-of-the-pack remaining schedule as it tries to secure a playoff berth. — Eric Moody, fantasy/sports betting writer
Dallas Cowboys will earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC
The Cowboys’ offense can and should be a dominant unit, and a key barometer for the unit is left tackle Tyron Smith. If he’s healthy, this offense has no holes and should dominate coming down the stretch.
The more interesting discussion is the upside of the defense. It currently sits No. 3 in interception rate and No. 7 in third-down defense. Cornerback Kelvin Joseph has played only two snaps so far, but he should help the Cowboys the rest of the way. Edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence has played in only one game, and his presence alone can make a world of difference. And one of the least heralded but most productive players is rookie defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa. He has 18 tackles and two sacks — look for him to continue to improve and be impactful coming down the stretch.
Dallas (6-2) will cruise to the NFC East title and ultimately be the No. 1 seed in the conference. FPI currently says the Cowboys have an 8.1% chance of getting that first-round bye, the fifth-best odds behind the Cardinals, Buccaneers, Packers and Rams. — Mike Tannenbaum, NFL analyst
Stephen A. Smith and Marcus Spears get heated discussing the Cowboys after their loss to the Broncos.
Tennessee Titans will win the AFC championship — and running back Derrick Henry will help get them to the Super Bowl
This team is good, and I think it wins the AFC even without Henry. But look for the talented running back to come back for a playoff run and get the Titans a trip to the Super Bowl. Coach Mike Vrabel has built a team that just beats up on everyone else. The 7-2 Titans currently have a 99.5% chance to win the division, a 57.0% chance of finishing atop the AFC and a 25.5% chance of making it to the Super Bowl, per FPI simulations. — Sam Acho, NFL analyst
I agree, Sam. The Titans opened the season with 14-1 odds to win the AFC crown, but their strong showing in the first half of the season now has them at 6-1, via Caesars Sportsbook. And I think they do it. During their recent five-game win streak, Tennessee had the fourth-most points scored per drive in the NFL (2.7) — but last week’s showing against the Rams highlighted a perhaps-overlooked defense. During the win streak, it had the NFL’s fifth-best red zone defensive efficiency (TDs scored on just 47.6% of opponent drives to inside the 20-yard line) and forced 11 turnovers.
The second-half schedule is favorable, especially over the final three weeks (49ers, Dolphins and Texans). And if all goes according to plan regarding tissue healing, Henry will be back on the field when the playoffs roll around, helping lead the Titans to the AFC title. — Stephania Bell, NFL fantasy analyst
Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff will make his final NFL start as a true starter
Goff has objectively been one of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks this season. His Total QBR of 28.9 is lower than that of every starter except rookies Zach Wilson (28.0) and Justin Fields (27.4), and Goff is in such a snooze that he has thrown the ball away on multiple fourth-down conversion attempts. Even with a hefty salary-cap hit looming, what argument could the Lions make for bringing him back?
Assuming the Lions become the second team in as many seasons to give up on him, Goff won’t start another NFL game unless it is as someone’s backup. — Kevin Seifert, NFL writer/reporter
Philadelphia Eagles will finish with three top-15 draft picks for the 2022 draft
Since the common draft era began in 1969, only three teams have made at least three first-round draft choices all inside the top 20 (1973 Patriots, 1975 Rams and 2000 Jets), but none has had three in the top 15. Already owning the Dolphins’ first-rounder in addition to their own, the Eagles are guaranteed to have at least two Day 1 picks — and with a combined five wins for the teams, both picks are trending toward early selections.
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The third one is trickier. As part of the offseason trade of quarterback Carson Wentz to the Colts, the Eagles will get Indy’s first-round pick if Wentz plays at least 75% of the Colts’ offensive snaps, or 70% if the Colts also make the playoffs. Assuming that plays out, the Eagles are in line to have the Nos. 6, 11 and 15 picks in April, according to FPI projections. — Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst
The Patriots are playing complementary football in all three phases right now. Quarterback Mac Jones is playing efficiently under center, New England has put together a strong running game and the defense has 16 takeaways (fourth in the NFL). At 5-4, the Patriots are only a half-game back in the division, and I think they will overtake the Bills for the AFC East title — even though FPI is giving them only a 14.9% chance. — Damien Woody, NFL analyst
New England Patriots will finish with a top-10 offense and defense — and make the playoffs
New England plays with a physical hat-on-hat run game. Jones plays incredibly fast and knows where to go with the ball. The defense is constantly unorthodox in its approach and slows down plenty of offenses. And coach Bill Belichick is learning how to use all of his weapons on offense in Year 2 without Tom Brady. There’s a lot to like here.
The Patriots are currently No. 23 in offensive efficiency but have the 10th-most points per game (25.6). And defensively, this team is fourth in efficiency and points against (18.9 per game). — Dan Orlovsky, NFL analyst
Stephen A. Smith is optimistic about the Patriots chances of making the playoffs.
Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke and the NFL will settle with the city of St. Louis
Before the scheduled trial on Jan. 10, Kroenke and the league will settle the city of St. Louis’ lawsuit that has lasted almost five years. The settlement amount could be close to a billion dollars.
Also: The ongoing lawsuit, and the fact that every owner is wrapped up in it, will guarantee that there will be no appetite from the membership to allow the Bills to relocate, should the stadium talks deteriorate. — Seth Wickersham, NFL writer/reporter