My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song.” – Etta James
And just like that, the 2021 offseason is mercifully over. Other than a few lingering details, like T. J. Watt’s contract negotiations, the AFC North is ready to go, with rosters having been more or less finalized last week. All four teams have accepted their assorted injuries and presumably compensated for them. Game plans are being reviewed and revised in pen.
It’s also time for the first 2021 weekly predictions piece, which you’re now reading the preamble to. Lest it needs to be said again…
As usual, these picks are for fun and should in no way be used for actual wagering purposes. That is, unless you want to make a ton of money in a legal forum, because we know more stuff and things about football than you do or something.
Now, about those games…
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills
Sunday, September 12, 1:00pm, CBS
The Bills and Steelers posted similar records last season, and both flamed out in the playoffs. That’s about where the similarities end.
The Bills are one of the NFL’s “up and coming” teams and a trendy pick to supplant the Chiefs as the AFC’s Super Bowl representative this year, and it’s entirely possible it happens. The Bills are banking on continued high-level play from 25-year old QB Josh Allen, who registered at or near the top of almost every major statistical passing category last season, while the Steelers are hoping for at least one more solid year from 39-year old QB Ben Roethlisberger while they scour multiple avenues for his eventual replacement. The team will undoubtedly spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over the state of their offensive line, which underwent a bloodletting of sorts after their playoff-ending loss to the Browns; simply put, if the unproven line works, the team will be fine and will most likely post a winning record. If it shows any signs of extended poor play, Pittsburgh’s season could unravel very quickly. The Steelers return most of their very good defense, with a few notable subtractions in the secondary and on the edge, which they’re attempting to fill with internal candidates. Whether it’s still good enough to stifle the Bills’ aerial attack remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Steelers 21, Bills 31
Minnesota Vikings @ Cincinnati Bengals
Sunday, September 12, 1:00pm, Fox
I imagine the Bengals are just fine with facing off against the NFC’s Jekyll and Hyde; the Vikings have been declining for a few years due to poor personnel decisions, mostly, and while head coach Mike Zimmer remains an excellent defensive mind, his offense, helmed by vaccine-resistant QB Kirk Cousins, has become a shining example of inconsistency, especially after the team unwisely let all-world WR Stephon Diggs depart via free agency last season. The Bengals have been largely satisfied with the recovery status of second-year QB Joe Burrow, whose increased velocity has reportedly been turning a few heads in camp. They should showcase some real balance this fall, as RB Joe Mixon remains a substantial rushing threat, and the WR corp continues to improve, bolstered by the addition of LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase through the 2021 draft. The key will be keeping Burrow upright and protected all season long. This week, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Vikings 16, Bengals 24
Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, September 12, 4:25pm, CBS
Ah, the Browns. Another “Super Bowl hopeful”.
As such, Cleveland can’t be very happy having to face the Chiefs in Week 1, where they’ll surely be out to prove their loss to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV was just an aberration. And I wish them good luck with that. This is not to diminish the Browns, who sport one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL and a solid if unspectacular passing game that stands to improve with extra reps and practice time, which the NFL was deprived of last year. The Browns should be able to score points with the Chiefs, but prevalent questions remain about the Cleveland defense, which retooled at almost every level with a combination of higher draft picks and free agents. Cohesion could be a problem for this group, especially early. The secondary welcomes back 2021 IL members S Grant Delpit and CB Greedy Williams, both of whom are expected to be healthy and participating Week 1. Given their opponent, the Browns will surely need them.
Browns 24, Chiefs 35
Baltimore Ravens @ Las Vegas Raiders
Monday, September 13, 8:15pm, ESPN
And yet another “hopeful” in the Ravens, although I’m having trouble being hopeful about them.
In the wake of starting RB J.K. Dobbins’ season-ending knee injury, the team has scrambled a bit to fill holes in the final stages of what’s assuredly a poor preseason. Several players, including notable draft picks, missed extended preseason playing time due to injury, COVID-19, or just plain old lousy execution. Rookies that were expected to make immediate contributions failed to produce even a mention in most cases; the lone exception being workout freak LB Odafe Oweh, whose excellent camp may have been the most welcome. The “new” game plan, so often mentioned and agonized over during the offseason due to “new additions” in the passing game, remains a complete mystery and may not ever see the light of day, considering the lack of personnel to this point. While the Raiders are a perennial .500 team, they carry enough firepower to test the Ravens, if not outright beat them soundly. Considering the game is in Vegas, the western time zone, and in the first full-seating event the Raiders’ stadium will have ever experienced, the odds of a Ravens win are simply not good.
Ravens 27, Raiders 34