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The 2021 NFL season is down to the final seven games, including Super Bowl LVI, and only eight teams remain: the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC, and the Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers in the NFC.
One team will win the next three games and be declared the new champions.
To preview the final stretch of the season, the managing editors of the eight remaining teams in the NFL playoff field provided answers to two simple questions: Why will your team win the Super Bowl? And why won’t your team win the Super Bowl?
Here are the responses:
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Why they will win the Super Bowl: The easy answer is always Derrick Henry, but not enough attention has been paid to the Titans’ impressive defense, which has done a major turnaround in 2021 and looks to be a championship-caliber unit. Tennessee has arguably the best front four in the NFL with Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Bud Dupree and Harold Landry. That group has consistently gotten pressure all season long, allowing the Titans to drop extra help into coverage, and it has been elite against the run. In the secondary, Tennessee has an elite safety duo in Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker, and Jackrabbit Jenkins, Kristian Fulton and Elijah Molden have all been good to great. All that and we didn’t even mention a supremely-talented inside linebacker duo in David Long and Zach Cunningham. While Henry is no doubt crucial to the Titans’ hopes of winning a Super Bowl, it’s the defense that will put this team over the top.
Why they won’t: The Titans’ biggest issue this year has been their passing attack, which has suffered thanks to inconsistency, injuries, and shoddy pass protection. Henry can only do so much by himself offensively, so it’s imperative that Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones step up to complement him, while also taking advantage of the extra attention Henry commands. Things were certainly moving in the right direction at the end of the season, but concerns about Tennessee’s ability to move the ball through the air are still valid after what we’ve seen over the entirety of the 18-week season. If Tennessee can even come close to re-capturing the success it had throwing the football the past two regular seasons, this team will be very hard to beat. If not, the Titans’ will struggle to go far in the playoffs.
– Mike Moraitis, Titans Wire
Kansas City Chiefs
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Why they will win the Super Bowl: The Chiefs are the most experienced team in the AFC this postseason. They’ve been to the AFC championship game in each of the past three seasons and the Super Bowl in each of the past two seasons. They know what it takes to win a Super Bowl (LIV) and they know the heartbreak of losing a Super Bowl (LV). Even with some fresh faces on the roster, this group has the pedigree and leadership to bring home another championship. They’re also hungry for a win after losing to the Buccaneers last year.
Why they won’t: Kansas City has been a beacon of inconsistency on both sides of the ball this season. When Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the offense are at their best they’re almost unstoppable. When Tyrann Mathieu and the rest of the defense are at their best, they can limit the effectiveness of even the most explosive offenses. The problem is getting those two things to happen at once in any given game. When penalties, drops, turnovers and miscues begin to happen, things go wrong for this Chiefs team.
– Charles Goldman, Chiefs Wire
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Why they will win the Super Bowl: The Bills get a lot of attention for the work quarterback Josh Allen does, and rightfully so, as he’s part of the reason why Buffalo could actually win a Super Bowl. Look no further than his 300-plus yard effort with five touchdowns against the Patriots in the wild-card round. But as the saying goes: Defense wins championships and Buffalo’s is at a Super Bowl-caliber level. Led by All-Pro defensive backs Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, the Bills have shut down everyone they’ve faced the past month. Buffalo finished 2021 with the NFL’s best defense in terms of scoring (17.0) and yards allowed (272.8). That’s title worthy.
Why they won’t: While the Bills do have a fantastic defense, one huge injury has gone mostly untested: the loss of cornerback Tre’Davious White. An All-Pro in his own right, Buffalo didn’t have an elite receiver to worry about against the Patriots or down the stretch run. Looking forward to just the other three remaining teams left in the AFC playoff picture, the Bengals, Titans, and certainly their upcoming opponent in the Chiefs, do have that type of talent. In addition, Buffalo’s run defense can be spotty and Allen can be, too. He was on fire last week but was not the few games prior. If one of these things does not hold up for the Bills, it typically has turned into a “when it rains, it pours” type of situation which would send them straight home.
– Nick Wojton, Bills Wire
(AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Why they will win the Super Bowl: It’s mostly about Joe Burrow. Over his last three starts (Ravens, Chiefs, Raiders), he’s thrown for 525, 446 and 244 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, posting minimums of 70.6 completion percentages and 110.4 ratings. His mobility is back to where it was during his LSU days, his arm’s stronger and he’s surrounded by an elite cast of weapons. The defense quietly carried the team over the season’s first half, with a Trey Hendrickson-led pass-rush putting up 170 pressures (top eight) and 42 sacks. It’s also about the conference – the Bengals swept the Steelers, Ravens and now Raiders, plus have wins over Denver and Kansas City. They beat the Titans, the No. 1 seed, as one of their four wins a season ago. If they can win two more games, Burrow can hang with any passer in the NFC (they lost to Green Bay by three points in overtime back in October, too).
Why they won’t: The injury bug’s starting to hit. Trey Hendrickson preps for the divisional round by working through concussion protocol. They lost situational pass-rusher Larry Ogunjobi to injured reserve. The offensive line, starting a backup at right tackle, played its best game of the year in the wild card round and should regress to mean. There’s also the inexperience factor. The entire program is incredibly young, including the coaching staff. Last week’s win over the Raiders is a blowout if there aren’t poor play-calling decisions on a few second downs and in the red zone. Zac Taylor and Co.’s margin of error dramatically shrinks by the week and Burrow can only pull them out of so much.
– Chris Roling, Bengals Wire
Green Bay Packers
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Why they will win the Super Bowl: The Packers have the likely NFL MVP in Aaron Rodgers, a horde of returning players from injury and homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Matt LaFleur’s team is healthy and rested after being tested over and over again by injury and adversity during the regular season. Now, the Packers are nearing full strength. Green Bay was also 8-0 at home and 5-1 overall against playoff teams this season. After failing in the NFC title game each of the last two years, the Packers finally look ready to bust down the door and get back to the Super Bowl. This team is talented and deep and led by Rodgers, a man on a mission.
Why they won’t: The Packers defense, an annually underperforming group come playoff time, showed concerning cracks in the foundation over the final month and a half of the season. All it takes is one poor performance against the run or a top quarterback for the season to come crashing down. The special teams have been a ticking time bomb all year, and neither the offense nor the defense has been consistently good situationally. Can Rodgers and the offense carry the Packers to three straight wins if the other two phases don’t pull their weight? Of course, Tom Brady and the defending champion Buccaneers would represent a significant hurdle in the NFC title game.
– Zach Kruse, Packers Wire
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Why they will win the Super Bowl: It starts with Tom Brady, the one quarterback nobody should bet against in the playoffs. But while many still give him most of the credit for last year’s title run, it’s the rest of the Bucs’ roster that should get more respect. The offensive line has three Pro Bowlers, while Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski have proven they can rise to the occasion and carry the passing game after the skill-position players Tampa Bay has lost down the stretch. The defense proved Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles that they’re still a dominant force with Lavonte David and Shaq Barrett back on the field, and Sunday was a gem for all of their special teams units.
Why they won’t: The only thing that will keep the Bucs from repeating as Super Bowl champions will be the players who won’t be on the field. Chris Godwin is out, Antonio Brown is gone, and the offensive line is now dealing with injuries to Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen and first-team All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Jason Pierre-Paul is still playing through multiple injuries, and it’s clear he’s not at full strength. Tampa Bay beat the Eagles despite being without both of their top running backs in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II. There’s still enough healthy talent to win the Lombardi Trophy again, but it won’t be surprising if the Bucs aren’t able to overcome the ridiculously bad injury luck they’ve been dealt all year long.
– Luke Easterling, Bucs Wire
Los Angeles Rams
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Why they will win the Super Bowl: You could argue that the Rams are the most talented team left in the playoffs. They have a proven quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a budding star at running back in Cam Akers, the NFL’s best wide receiver, Cooper Kupp, and a defense that has three future Hall of Famers: Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller. Their collection of playmakers rivals any in the NFL, and all of them shined on the big stage against the Cardinals in the wild-card round. As long as Stafford plays within himself and doesn’t force throws into double and triple coverage, the Rams are going to be tough to beat – especially if they grab a lead and force the opponent to drop back and throw it 30 times.
Why they won’t: Stafford is a streaky quarterback who can look like an MVP for three weeks and then turn the ball over eight times in a single month. If the Rams get the bad version of Stafford for even one half of a game, they could be doomed because when things go wrong with the former Lions quarterback, they go very wrong. There are also concerns about the secondary outside of Jalen Ramsey. Starting safety Jordan Fuller is out for the year, Darious Williams hasn’t been the lockdown corner he was in 2020 and their nickel rotation of Dont’e Deayon and David Long Jr. doesn’t strike much fear in opposing offenses who can go three and four wide. If the pass rush can’t get home quickly, their cornerbacks (outside of Ramsey) can be susceptible to allowing big plays.
– Cameron DaSilva, Rams Wire
San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Why they will win the Super Bowl: The 49ers are built to win in a very specific way that plays well in January. They’re going to run the ball downhill and relentlessly get after the quarterback for four quarters. When they do both of those things there aren’t any teams San Francisco can’t beat. Their run game is explosive and diverse thanks to the utilization of receiver Deebo Samuel as a running back and the stellar play of rookie sixth-round pick running back Elijah Mitchell. Head coach Kyle Shanahan’s creativity shines when both of them are on the field and it’s a big reason the 49ers continue to score points despite some limitations from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. If they’re running effectively and keeping Garoppolo out of third-and-long, they can score with anyone. And when they get a lead their very deep pass rush, which is the focal point of their defense, can pin its ears back and affect even the best quarterbacks. If the 49ers win the Super Bowl, it’d be a huge win for old-school football.
Why they won’t: It’s hard for a team to win consistently in the NFL when they go into virtually every game with the worse quarterback. That’s the scenario San Francisco finds themselves in and it’s ultimately why they’d fall short. If a defense has an effective plan to slow the 49ers’ run game, they don’t have a great counterpunch because Garoppolo is too sporadic. Sometimes he’s nails and comes through for them. Other times he sails a pass into a safety’s arms. Turnovers and not converting on third downs are two very quick ways to exit the postseason. Their secondary has been better of late, but it’s not a dominant group and they can be beaten if the pass rush isn’t finding its way to the quarterback. If they’re not rushing the passer and running effectively it means they’re in a shootout with Garoppolo under center and that’s not how the 49ers are built to win.
– Kyle Madson, Niners Wire