Super Bowl Contenders: Packers, Cowboys, Buccaneers and Chiefs Headline Favorites For Super Bowl LVI Run

Super Bowl Contenders: Packers, Cowboys, Buccaneers and Chiefs Headline Favorites For Super Bowl LVI Run article feature image
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Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images. Pictured: Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.

It’s officially kickoff day of the 2021 NFL season! As the Cowboys prepare to take on the Buccaneers, let’s dig into the finale of our four-part season preview.

Every year as we hit the new season, I separate all 32 teams into four buckets of eight teams. Which eight teams are stuck at the bottom? What eight non-contenders are trending up, and which eight teams are headed in the wrong direction?

It’s time for the final eight teams — and we saved the best for last. Today, we consider this year’s eight Super Bowl contenders, and spoiler alert: two of them are facing each other tonight.

We’ll go through teams in increasing order of Vegas win total, analyzing and previewing each team and choosing whether to pass, lean or play the over/under. Along the way you’ll find offensive and defensive unit ranks for each team, plus other bets worth considering.

In yesterday’s sleepers article, we noted how many great defenses were present. Today it’s all about offense. All eight teams below ranked in my top 10 offensive units. Offense wins football games in 2021. Let’s score some bets.

Check out the entire four-part season preview:

NOTE: Team totals in headings are from DraftKings, with each pick recommendation listing the book with the best available line as of writing.

Cowboys Over/Under 9.5 Wins

Surprise! Fine, we ruined the surprise in the intro. Either way, the 2021 NFL Kickoff Game features not one but two Super Bowl contenders.

At least it might. A median outcome Cowboys season doesn’t end in the Super Bowl, or maybe even in the playoffs. This is a bet on what it looks like if things really come together for this team, and for the first time in ages, the public might actually be underrating the Dallas Cowboys.

This offense is absurdly loaded if everyone gets and stays healthy. Dak Prescott is a top-five QB now, and the Cowboys have the best receivers in the NFL outside of Tampa, with CeeDee Lamb being a major breakout candidate. The offensive line looks whole again, and that could mean a big bounce-back year for Ezekiel Elliott. There’s no question this is a Super Bowl offense if healthy.

The question is whether the defense can do its part. The depth chart on that end is rough, and the run defense was terrible last year. Rookie Micah Parsons could be an immediate impact guy, and Malik Hooker and Keanu Neal are big additions if they can stay on the field. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch need to stay out there too. The talent is there if things come together under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. This defense doesn’t have to be great, but can it be average?

If the D can hold its own, a stacked offense and soft schedule could do the rest. The Cowboys open on the road against the Bucs and Chargers but have the easiest schedule in the NFL after, including four of their final five against division opponents. Mike McCarthy may not have inspired much confidence on “Hard Knocks,” but this is a deep and experienced coaching staff including specialists Quinn, Joe Philbin (OL), John Fassel (ST), and George Edwards (DEF).

Things almost never seem to go right for America’s Team anymore, but if they stay healthy, the Cowboys might be real Super Bowl contenders. They’re +3500 at FanDuel — but you might get an even better number if the Bucs run up the score in the opener.

Win Total Verdict: Play Over 9.5 (+115) at FanDuel

Rams Over/Under 10.5 Wins

It certainly feels like the Rams should be a Super Bowl contender.

The Rams sure think they are, after going out and mortgaging the future on an all-in trade for Matthew Stafford. This is one of the most fascinating QB experiments in recent memory. Stafford is a former No. 1 pick and has all the talent and arm strength, but he’s never had the right players around him. He replaces Jared Goff, another former No. 1 pick who never lived up to billing despite playing in the perfect Sean McVay system with plenty of help.

The question is whether Stafford truly still has all the help he needs. The Rams are shaping up as a stars and scrubs roster. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey might be the two most valuable defenders in football, but who’s the third best defensive player on this team? John Johnson, Troy Hill and Michael Brockers are real losses, and this defense is surprisingly weak and thin around its two superstars. The offensive line is good but aging, and the RB corps is weak after Cam Akers’ injury. Even the coaching staff has thinned out dramatically as all of McVay’s assistants get hired elsewhere.

McVay is making a huge bet on himself and on Stafford, Ramsey and Donald. How few superstars can comprise a real contender? We’re about to find out.

Win Total Verdict: Pass

49ers Over/Under 10.5 Wins

Like the Rams, the 49ers are a talented team with an elite offensively-minded coach in a loaded division. The difference is that the Niners don’t trade in those few splashy superstar names for depth and talent across every position, and that depth and balance could be the key to a deep run in a pandemic year.

Almost every year, a team that finished bottom of its division the previous season goes worst-to-first the following year, and the 49ers are the obvious pick to do so this season — even in a tough division — at +190 on FanDuel. San Francisco screams regression in any number of ways.

First, there’s the massive injury luck that should swing back in San Francisco’s favor. The Niners had by far the worst injury issues in the NFL last year. Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle and Nick Bosa, the best three players on the team, all missed major time. Deebo Samuel, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman and Solomon Thomas missed time too. That’s seven of the top 10 players on this roster, a massive blow.

The 49ers were also devastated by turnovers last season, the sort of thing that happens when your starting QB is hurt and you don’t have a reliable backup. They faced one of the league’s toughest schedules and even got bad special teams and kicking luck. The schedule swings the other way this season, especially in the second half, and a last-place schedule means variable games against the Eagles, Bengals and Falcons while the rest of the division faces much tougher foes.

What happens at quarterback? Everyone’s excited to get Trey Lance on the field, but Lance is very young with just one season of FCS experience and might need some time — and Garoppolo has been pretty darn good when healthy. He’s 22-8 with the Niners, a 12.5-win pace, and San Francisco has ranked top-five in EPA per play with him on the field. Garoppolo is very good, and Lance’s presence significantly raises the floor of this team by providing an excellent backup for the first time.

This team is the real deal. If they stay healthy this time, the 49ers could contend for the NFC 1-seed, which you can bet at +550 at FanDuel. We’ll see if it’s Lance or Jimmy G, but either QB has a great chance with this roster.

Win Total Verdict: Lean Over 10.5 (+107) at DraftKings

Browns Over/Under 10.5  Wins

The Browns are the real deal.

Last year was about the offensive leap. Bill Callahan helped the line improve immensely, and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the best RB duo in the league. This is the NFL’s finest rushing attack, and that opens up the deadly play-action game for Kevin Stefanski. He had Baker Mayfield playing his best ball late, and now the offense gets Odell Beckham Jr. back too.

If Cleveland is a real Super Bowl contender, though, it’ll be because of the defense. Last year’s defense was pretty bad, especially the run D, and it makes this team look like a major regression candidate in the wrong direction. But the Browns have added serious help on defense.

Jadeveon Clowney is still a terrifying pass rusher, and he’s going to see single teams playing across from Myles Garrett, who was playing at a Defensive Player of the Year-level before COVID waylaid his season. Denzel Ward is back from injury too, and he gets big help in the secondary with the addition of Troy Hill and rookie Greg Newsome at corner, plus John Johnson organizing things at safety. Anthony Walker is another key addition, and rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is a wrecking ball that does a bit of everything. Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams are back too. That’s nine key names, giving this defense a complete makeover.

Last year’s team made the leap on offense, but this defense could end up even better than the offense if everything falls into place. The guy who will make or break this season is Baker Mayfield. If he’s uneven and unreliable, the team will be too. But if he takes another step forward, he could be a sleeper MVP contender (+3500 at BetMGM) and the sky is the limit on this team.

The Browns absolutely belong on the list of Super Bowl contenders, and they might be closer to the top of the list than the bottom by season’s end. They’re an intriguing Super Bowl value at +1600 at FanDuel — and if you don’t believe they can win in Kansas City Week 1, all the better to grab their odds afterward.

Win Total Verdict: Pass

Ravens Over/Under 10.5 Wins

Editor’s Note: This blurb was written before the news that Gus Edwards and Marcus Peters reportedly suffered what are feared to be torn ACLs on consecutive plays during practice Thursday.

The Ravens are just so good at everything. They’re a team that’s built the right way, with all the little edges that make them a regular-season juggernaut and a consistent threat for a deep run.

The defense will be good again, because it always is. The Ravens have ranked top 10 in run defense five straight seasons per Football Outsiders, and they’ve been in the top 10 overall defensively in three straight. DC Wink Martindale loves to blitz, and he trusts his elite corners with a ton of man coverage. Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young comprise the league’s best set of corners.

The rushing attack will be fearsome again, like usual. Last year’s squad took a step back from historically great to just really good, but a healthier and revamped offensive line should open up plenty of running lanes for Lamar Jackson and Gus “Bus” Edwards. The passing game remains a question mark, but Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman and a healthy Marquise Brown are the best receivers Jackson’s had yet.

Don’t forget about the special teams. John Harbaugh sure doesn’t. The Ravens have ranked in the top nine in Football Outsiders’ Special Teams DVOA an incredible nine straight seasons. They’ve ranked top-four in seven of those. You might not make much of that, but special teams make up about one-eighth of the game. An elite special teams unit can be worth two wins over a full season.

Baltimore knows what it is, and it’s not like anything else in the league, even still. Lamar Jackson remains an electric runner, and there’s still built-in upside on this team if the passing attack ever takes off.

The coaching, defense, special teams and running attack give the Ravens an extremely high floor and make them a regular season juggernaut, one that could contend again for the AFC 1-seed (+550 at FanDuel). The question is whether this style can compete against the league’s best in the playoffs, and that’s a fair question, but we dare not read too much into a small sample — and it’s just as fair to wonder which opponents could struggle to match up with Baltimore too.

Cleveland, in particular, could struggle to stop the Ravens run, and that’s a key advantage in a tight division race, especially since the winner gets a home game and maybe even a bye. Baltimore is +750 to win the AFC at BetMGM. If they do wrap up the 1-seed, they’re only two favored home games away from the Super Bowl.

Win Total Verdict: Play Over 10.5 (-155) at DraftKings

Packers Over/Under 10.5 Wins

How much of a contender are the Packers, really?

On the one hand, Green Bay is coming off back-to-back 13-3 seasons and brings back most of the same team, including defending NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. On the other hand, most advanced metrics models predicted big regression after the first 13-3 season, and the same models are back for more regression predictions this year.

The Packers led the league in Offensive DVOA in 2020 but ranked seventh and eighth the previous season. That leap was due at least in part to an unsustainably high red zone conversion rate of 80% (good teams are usually in the low 60s), and it was also boosted by career outliers from Rodgers on TD rate and YPA. Those numbers should regress this year, especially since stud C Corey Linsley is gone and LT David Bakhtiari is still recovering from a torn ACL.

On the other other hand, the best way to keep exceeding expectations is with an awesome, all-time great quarterback. Is Green Bay really due to regress, or is Rodgers just this good? The Packers defense is better than it gets credit for but also better at protecting leads. Green Bay isn’t so good against the run, but the pass rush and secondary are strong.

At the end of the day, Green Bay has a marquee player at the five most important position in football: QB, LT, WR Davante Adams, ED Za’Darius Smith, and CB Jaire Alexander. This is mostly the same team from a year ago.  That team was one away from leading the the NFL in wins, and you can bet them to do so at +2000 on DraftKings. The Packers have a surprisingly soft schedule buoyed by a weak division, and they have a shot to be 8-0 heading to Kansas City for the game of the year.

Win Total Verdict: Lean Over 10.5 (-132) at FanDuel

Buccaneers Over/Under 11.5 Wins

The Bucs are so clearly the most loaded roster in football that we almost don’t even need to talk about them. Almost.

Tampa Bay is the defending Super Bowl champion, and the Bucs return almost the entire roster. This sort of continuity just doesn’t happen in the modern era. Who did the Bucs lose? LeSean McCoy? Joe Haeg, the O-lineman who dropped the Super Bowl touchdown? That’s really the list. Heck, the Bucs get back stud run stuffer Vita Vea, who missed most of last season injured.

There’s talent up and down the roster. Lavonte David and Devin White are the league’s best linebacker duo. Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are elite pass rushers. The weapons on offense are absolutely absurd: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Ronald Jones — and we could literally name five others. The O-line is very good. And oh, right, they have the GOAT at quarterback. Prettay, prettay, prettay good.

The Bucs could be an absolute juggernaut. This team will be hard to beat in any game, especially with the league’s easiest schedule. They can win with defense. They can win a shootout. They have excellent coaching. They’re good at everything. So rather than focus on the good, let’s imagine what could possibly go wrong.

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For me, it starts with the secondary. The corners are the weakest spot on the team, and you know teams will be passing on Tampa a lot this season. The offensive line is at least a bit shaky too, relative to the rest of the team. Those are the two units, outside of QB obviously, that can derail a team the fastest if things go sideways. Tampa was the healthiest team in football by an outlandish margin last season, according to Football Outsiders. That sort of stuff tends to even out. The Bucs have also finished in the bottom seven in Special Teams DVOA in five of the past six seasons.

There are a few cracks, but it’s not much. If the cracks do start to show, we’ll see them coming: mounting injuries, or soft spots in the secondary or on the line. For now, it’s reasonable to expect wins, a lot of them, and the Bucs are Super Bowl favorites until proven otherwise.

I think Tom Brady should be the MVP favorite, and that he has a shot at another all-time season — think 5,000 yards and 50 TDs — if everything goes right. If you’re in on the Bucs regular season, Brady at +1400 to win MVP at BetMGM might be the best future on the entire board.

Win Total Verdict: Pass

Chiefs Over/Under 12.5 Wins

The Chiefs are the AFC favorite, because of course they are. They’ve played in three straight AFC Championship Games and are an offside call away from playing in three straight Super Bowls. Somehow the coaching staff is still intact — not just Andy Reid, but also OC Eric Bienemy, DC Steve Spagnuolo, even ST Dave Taub — and that plus Patrick Mahomes is enough to make the Chiefs favorites every time.

Mahomes has won 20 of his last 21 regular-season games. He’s 44-8 lifetime as an NFL starter, and that includes eight playoff games somehow. Until the Super Bowl, Mahomes had never even lost an NFL game by more than one score. He is absolutely absurd, and as long as Mahomes is healthy and out there, that’s usually enough. Having Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce plus a remade offensive line certainly helps.

Still, the Chiefs defense is the worst on today’s list by a comfortable amount. Chris Jones remains great but there’s not much else to get excited about. There’s little pass rush off the edge, and the corners look very beatable. It’s really hard to make the playoffs with a bottom-10 defense — unless you have a top-three offense like the Chiefs.

It might not be as big a margin for error as it seems, though. The Chiefs were a ridiculous 8-1 in one-score games last year, and they needed comebacks in both playoff wins too. That certainly makes it seem like Mahomes is just inevitable, but everything we know from history says that’s unsustainable. Kansas City went 14-2 last season but its Pythagorean expectations were a more pedestrian 10.7 wins.

There are some red flags here, and the Chiefs may not be as invincible as they seem. The Chiefs invested heavily into their offensive line, and it’s hard to blame them after the Super Bowl, but the team hasn’t added much young talent and the roster is getting thinner and thinner. The first half of the schedule is pretty tricky, with a lot of losable games, but the back half opens up beautifully.

If you want to bet on Mahomes to win MVP or make another run, I certainly won’t be the one to stop you. Just know that you’re probably better off waiting a month or two for a better price down the stretch.

Win Total Verdict: Play Under 12.5 (-110) at PointsBet

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