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NFL playoff picks, predictions for 2021 AFC, NFC brackets and Super Bowl 55

A wild and peculiar 2020 common season is completed. Whereas the NFL did handle to full a full schedule of 256 video games amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot went awry alongside the best way. Likewise, Sporting News’ predictions from the preseason had been a combined bag. 

The crew we projected to win Super Bowl 55 completed 14-2, is the AFC’s No. 1 seed and the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions. In actual fact, we appropriately picked 5 of the seven AFC playoff representatives, together with the tip of the Browns’ 18-year drought and the Payments’ first division title since 1995. Nevertheless, we did not fare as properly within the NFC, the place we thought the historically bad NFC East would produce two playoff groups (ouch) and our prediction of the top-seeded Packers’ demise was painfully untimely.

The 2021 NFL playoff bracket is larger (although, arguably, not higher) than ever earlier than, with the AFC and NFC every gaining an additional entry.

That provides the SN workers a chance to make good on our misses — or get much more issues unsuitable.

Beneath are Sporting Information’ predictions for the 2021 NFL playoffs, full with recent Tremendous Bowl picks, as NFL writers Vinnie Iyer, Invoice Bender, Matt Lutovsky and Billy Heyen weigh in on the bracket, making an allowance for what we realized about all 14 playoff groups over the course of the season. 

MORE NFL PLAYOFFS:
AFC & NFC bracket | TV schedule | Wild-card game predictions

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NFL playoff picks, predictions 2021

Which wild-card crew (5-7 seeds) is the most important risk to win all of it?

Vinnie Iyer: The Buccaneers (11-5) should be the selection right here with the GOAT QB flipping from the Patriots to the NFC. They dominated the NFC No. 1 seed Packers within the common season and almost got here again to knock off the AFC No. 1 seed Chiefs, too. The Ravens and Lamar Jackson are intriguing as a No. 5, too, however Tom Brady is taking part in at an elite stage and the Bucs have a whole crew round him. 

Invoice Bender: Ravens. Tampa Bay is also an appropriate reply, but when the Ravens can simply get by means of Tennessee within the first spherical, then Lamar Jackson might make it attention-grabbing towards the remainder of the AFC. J.Okay. Dobbins is an rising drive within the working recreation, and the protection allowed simply 10 factors per recreation the final three weeks. Granted that was towards weaker competitors, however for a crew that was impacted by COVID-19 this season, they’re clicking on the proper time.  

Matt Lutovsky: Ravens. Tampa is the simple reply due to its first-round matchup, the shortage of a dominant crew within the NFC, and, you already know, having one of the best quarterback of all-time main its offense, however Baltimore additionally has a good first-round matchup, stable protection, and, you already know, the reigning NFL MVP main its offense. The Ravens additionally completed the season with the most important optimistic level differential (165) — 39 extra factors than any crew within the AFC. Final yr’s playoff flop probably has many counting out the Ravens, however the expertise is there for a deep run. 

Billy Heyen: Ravens. The favored reply right here could be the Buccaneers and Tom Brady, however Lamar Jackson’s distinctive skills create a direct mismatch in no matter recreation he performs. Among the Ravens’ defensive numbers are deceptive because of mid-season COVID-19 absences, however that aspect of the ball is powerful for Baltimore, too.

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Which of the highest 1-3 seeds in both convention is most certainly to be upset?

Vinnie Iyer: The Steelers (12-4) haven’t performed all that properly down the stretch, save for the large comeback towards the Colts. They determined to be an object at relaxation vs. the motivated Browns final week and now must play the identical crew with much more within the line. The Packers, Saints, Seahawks, Chiefs and Payments all have saved their finest for final within the season. The Steelers are clearly weaker general than these 5 groups. 

Invoice Bender: Steelers. Watch out what you would like for. Cleveland edged the Steelers in Week 17 to get into the playoffs, and Pittsburgh misplaced 4 of its final 5 video games. The Steelers wanted a giant second half simply to beat the Colts in Week 16. The Browns have a two-headed working recreation in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and Baker Mayfield has emerged as a more-efficient quarterback with first-year coach Kevin Stefanski. This can be not be a simple wild-card recreation in prime time for Pittsburgh.

MORE: Updated Super Bowl odds for every 2021 playoff team

Matt Lutovsky: Payments. The Steelers are taking part in the worst of any of the highest six seeds whereas the Payments are arguably taking part in one of the best, however Buffalo additionally has a a lot harder opening-round matchup. Indianapolis boasts a top-flight protection, dominant working recreation, and veteran QB — often a recipe for profitable in January. The Payments offense could be too good for anybody to decelerate, however the Colts can have a shot. The matchups for the Steelers (vs. Browns), Saints (vs. Bears), and Seahawks (vs. Rams)  all determine to be extra favorable, although the Rams protection will make issues attention-grabbing in Seattle.

Billy Heyen: Steelers. There’s part of me saying the Seahawks, however we’ll go along with Pittsburgh right here. Regardless of the Steelers’ 17-point comeback towards the Colts in Week 16, this is not an offense that is checked out all harmful within the second half of the season behind Ben Roethlisberger’s getting old arm and an anemic working recreation. Cleveland might knock them out within the first spherical.

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Who’s your decide for playoff MVP?

Vinnie Iyer: Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are tempting as veteran Tremendous Bowl-winning future Corridor of Famers. However these playoffs have loads of these, together with Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. That mentioned, it’s exhausting to go towards one of the best, most harmful participant within the NFL. Patrick Mahomes joined the membership in spectacular vogue in final yr’s playoffs. It’s at all times Mahomes vs. the sphere in these kinds of awards going ahead.

Invoice Bender: Patrick Mahomes. Who else are we supposed to select? Mahomes had 9 video games with 300 passing yards or extra this season. He averaged 300.3 yards with 10 TDs and two interceptions in final yr’s playoff, and the Chiefs and averaged 39 factors per recreation. There are up-and-coming younger challengers within the AFC, together with Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield – however Mahomes stays the quarterback to beat.  

Matt Lutovsky: Patrick Mahomes. Sure, that is boring, however he’s one of the best QB on one of the best crew. Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Josh Allen, amongst others, aren’t precisely slouches, however after watching Mahomes within the postseason final yr, we’ve no motive to doubt him heading into one other playoff run.

Billy Heyen: Josh Allen. The Chiefs and Packers will get all of the reward for incomes the first-round byes, however the Payments are as scorching as any crew in soccer and it is all due to Allen. If Buffalo shocks the remainder of the soccer world and wins the Tremendous Bowl, which is a official chance, Allen would be the motive. 

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What under-the-radar participant will develop into a star within the playoffs?

Vinnie Iyer: There are lot of fine selections however the Packers’ secondary duo of Jaire Alexander and Adrian Amos are two enjoyable gamers to look at. They’re a superb mixture in go protection they usually can include a few of the massive playmakers within the NFC area. As a lot consideration Rodgers, Davante Adams and the offense will get, the Packers will go so far as their protection can take them. 

Invoice Bender: Darnell Savage. The final time the Packers made a Tremendous Bowl run security Nick Collins was a key piece on the again finish. Inexperienced Bay might need discovered that participant once more in Savage, a second-year security who has 31 tackles and two interceptions within the Packers’ final 5 video games. He is a playmaker who has the potential to make that game-changing play in a decent recreation. 

Matt Lutovsky: Jamaal Williams. He’s a backup working again, however Williams will get loads of touches and has the flexibility to interrupt massive performs as each a runner and a receiver in Inexperienced Bay’s high-powered offense. Most essential: He does full dance routines earlier than each recreation. That’s the sort of further panache a participant wants to really develop into a star.

Billy Heyen: Ronald Jones. The Buccaneers’ working again got here up simply shy of 1,000 yards in 2020, ending with 978 in 14 video games. However he is confirmed to be the lead again forward of Leonard Fournette. Regardless of that, he flies underneath the radar behind Brady and a big-name passing assault. If Tampa Bay goes on a playoff run, Jones will certainly be part of it along with his robust working between the tackles and ending capability down close to the aim line. 

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What offense do you belief essentially the most?

Vinnie Iyer: Packers. Surprisingly, the Chiefs are solely the sixth-highest scoring offense within the NFL playoffs. The Packers led everybody with 31.8 factors per recreation, spectacular contemplating 5 groups averaged 30 or extra factors throughout the common season. They’ve received Rodgers, Adams, Aaron Jones, an explosive passing recreation and a powerful working recreation. There are fewer methods to close down Inexperienced Bay than some other crew within the match. 

Invoice Bender: Chiefs. Coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and will probably be even higher if Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip) is ready to return after a four-week relaxation. There may be velocity, creativity and regardless of just a few extra turnovers late within the season, Mahomes ought to have every part clicking for the playoffs. It is exhausting to guess towards an offense that averages 415.8 yards per recreation. 

Matt Lutovsky: Chiefs. They’ve sputtered a bit down the stretch, however they nonetheless discover a solution to pull out video games. As dominant because the Payments, Packers, and Buccaneers have been, the Chiefs have one of the best QB, essentially the most velocity, and arguably one of the best play-caller(s).

Billy Heyen: Packers. The damage to Clyde Edwards-Helaire offers me slight pause there, whereas Inexperienced Bay just lately uncovered AJ Dillon so as to add to an already robust dashing assault. That Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams connection is simply so, so harmful. It is exhausting to think about anybody even slowing them down, not to mention stopping them. 

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What protection do you belief essentially the most?

Vinnie Iyer: The Rams should be the selection right here with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. That’s their solely ticket to profitable a number of video games within the playoffs with one of many worst offenses (beautiful for a Sean McVay crew) within the match. The query isn’t whether or not the Rams will make life tough on some high-scoring proficient teams, however whether or not they can nonetheless rating sufficient themselves to beat these groups. 

Invoice Bender: Buccaneers. The reply would have been Pittsburgh earlier than accidents to Devin Bush and Bud Dupree, however Tampa Bay has a protection that may be Tremendous Bowl-caliber. The Buccaneers dominated towards Aaron Rodgers in a 38-10 win, they usually restricted Kansas Metropolis to lower than 30 factors in a three-point recreation. The offense has come round with the emergence of midseason signing Antonio Brown.  

MORE: Ranking every NFL team’s real chances to win Super Bowl 55

Matt Lutovsky: Rams. The Rams and Steelers are each dominant on each stage, however Pittsburgh is slightly worse at protecting huge receivers. The Steelers are higher at protecting tight ends and drive extra general incompletions, however while you’re going through elite receiver teams within the postseason, the flexibility to cowl pass-catchers on the surface can be much more essential. 

Billy Heyen: Does anybody play protection anymore? It is most likely the Rams and their duo of superstars, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Los Angeles allowed the fewest yards per go try within the NFL this season whereas permitting the third-fewest yards per carry. Having Ramsey to close down a No. 1 receiver and Donald to mess every part up for an offense is an effective begin, and an unheralded linebacking corps performed properly in 2020.

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Who’s your decide to win the AFC?

Vinnie Iyer: The AFC is a harder, top-heavier area than anticipated with each crew having 11 or extra wins. That mentioned, the Chiefs have a powerful resume beating a number of of the groups this season and match up properly with those they’ve but to play, such because the Colts, Browns and Steelers. There’s no actual impediment to assume Mahomes will fall brief, particularly with NFC wins over the Saints and Buccaneers, too. 

Invoice Bender: Chiefs. They have home-field benefit, and Mahomes is 17-4 with a 105.7 passer ranking at Arrowhead Stadium for his profession. It is at all times robust to repeat. Buffalo and Baltimore are attention-grabbing threats, however Kansas Metropolis beat each of these groups on the street this season. Reid will get a shot at a second Tremendous Bowl.  

Matt Lutovsky: Chiefs. They’ve the expertise, expertise, and home-field benefit. The latter won’t matter fairly as a lot this yr, but it surely’s not fully insignificant. The well being of RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire will certainly matter, however he has a good likelihood of returning for the Divisional Spherical. 

Billy Heyen: Payments. Contemplating Allen was my playoff MVP decide, should double down right here and say the Payments will make it out of the AFC. They noticed Kansas Metropolis, their probably convention championship opponent, earlier within the season and will be capable of modify from a 26-17 loss. That matchup will probably come right down to the Payments’ protection, which may gradual Tyreek Hill with Tre’Davious White and Travis Kelce with a mixture of Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde and Matt Milano. It would not be as massive an upset as some may assume.

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Who’s your decide to win the NFC?

Vinnie Iyer: This one is extra difficult. It’s a four-team race between the Packers, Saints, Seahawks and Buccaneers. As a lot as Inexperienced Bay and residential area make going chalk tempting, the sphere may make it robust. The Saints and Seahawks convey up recollections of latest playoff disappointment which are exhausting to shake. Right here’s going with the Bucs, as Brady can be motivated to point out he can nonetheless stand out from Rodgers, Brees and Wilson and get one other shot at Mahomes. Now that might be a GOAT story. 

Invoice Bender: Packers. Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur will reap the benefits of Lambeau Discipline. The offensive line seemed ok with out David Bakthiari, and that working recreation can be big. Rodgers’ reference to Davante Adams is sort of unstoppable, and the protection does sufficient to get the Packers one other Tremendous Bowl shot. 

Matt Lutovsky: Packers. The NFC is fairly huge open, however Inexperienced Bay’s offense, mixed with having home-field benefit, places it excessive. Getting Tom Brady and/or Drew Brees open air at Lambeau, even with restricted followers, is a giant benefit for a crew that’s used to taking part in within the parts. 

Billy Heyen: Packers. Rodgers to Adams is simply too good. Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon and Jamaal Williams are one of the best three-headed dashing assault within the NFC bracket, not less than. Preston and Za’Darious Smith present a powerful pass-rushing duo. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King are stable on the cornerback spots. And the NFC has to undergo Lambeau Discipline, the place Inexperienced Bay could be very robust to beat.

Tremendous Bowl predictions 2021

Vinnie Iyer: Chiefs over Buccaneers. Brady vs. Mahomes once more is what we’ve received, which ought to shock nobody. Brady by no means received to immediately hand over the multiple-ring torch and potential GOATness to Mahomes in final yr’s playoffs with the Patriots. That transition of energy occurs peacefully right here, in a high-scoring affair the place there can be no recount wanted. Right here’s re-electing Mahomes as Tremendous Bowl champion, making him the primary QB to repeat since Brady. 

Invoice Bender: Chiefs over Packers. Rodgers-Mahomes would produce ridiculous rankings, and the high-scoring enchantment of that Tremendous Bowl could be unbelievable. Mahomes missed the Chiefs-Packers matchup on “Sunday Night time Soccer.” There hasn’t been a repeat champion since 2004-05 with New England, which reveals simply how exhausting it’s to go back-to-back. Kansas Metropolis, nevertheless, has all of the instruments to win it once more. It is a thriller with the Packers, however Mahomes will get it executed once more in a shootout.

Matt Lutovsky: Chiefs over Packers. Patrick Mahomes is simply too good to guess towards when he’s taking part in at an MVP stage like he’s this yr. He won’t win the award, however he didn’t win it final yr both — and everyone knows how that turned out.

Billy Heyen: Packers over Payments. Rodgers and Adams will show even too robust for White and firm to deal with on the defensive aspect, and if Buffalo’s had a defensive weak spot this yr, it has been sometimes on the bottom, the place Inexperienced Bay’s depth ought to thrive. The Packers might additionally take care of the Chiefs, Steelers or whoever makes it out of the AFC, as a result of every part Inexperienced Bay does properly can be stuff for any of these contenders to cease.

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