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Best games of the 2021 NFL season

Steelers @ Bills- Week 1

Two playoff teams from last season, both known for having a blue-collar mentality and tough defenses. Pittsburgh will be looking to prove it's still a playoff contender despite its aging roster. Ben Roethlisberger returns this year, but the contingency plan for his eventual retirement is far from settled. On the other side, Josh Allen is becoming a young star quarterback and should be an MVP candidate for the Bills. Buffalo's offense got a much needed jolt with the addition of Stefon Diggs last season, and facing the Steelers' defense should be a good indicator of further progress in 2021. Pittsburgh will also get to debut Najee Harris at running back against a Buffalo defense that has struggled against the run.

Browns @ Chiefs- Week 1

A rematch of the 2020-21 AFC Divisional Playoff Round. In January, Cleveland took the usual early beating from Kansas City. However, the Browns made a comeback in the second half. Cleveland has arguably its best roster since returning as an expansion franchise in 1999 and playing the defending AFC Champs should allow the Browns to gauge their progress and figure out what they need to improve early in the season. We all know what Kansas City is at this point, so it'll be trial by fire for Cleveland's new defenders.

Bills vs Dolphins- Weeks 2 & 8

This game could go a long way in determining the AFC East. Miami found itself late last season but was unable to claim a playoff berth. Miami has an opportunistic defense that can cause turnovers at will and an offense full of potential young stars. You could say the biggest obstacles for the Dolphins' offense have been the offensive line, a blocking tight end, and No. 2 receiver. Hunter Long fills the tight end role, while Jaylen Waddle becomes a perfect No.2 WR, so the offense has high potential if the offensive line holds up well enough. A key matchup in this game will be Buffalo's deep group of pass-rushers against that offensive line. While both teams are good on defense, Miami needs to capitalize on every chance its offense can get.

Chiefs @ Ravens- Week 2

Two of the AFC's premier teams will meet on Sunday Night Football in Week 2. It's appointment viewing whenever they get together. Kansas City likes to use Patrick Mahomes's arm and the embarrassment of riches it has at the skill positions to go fast and score as many points as possible. Baltimore, on the other hand, is a much more power and run oriented offense--using Lamar Jackson's running ability at quarterback to create advantages. Kansas City has improved its defense and may be better equipped to handle that attack this time around. Baltimore has added some receivers to try to improve a passing game that struggled mightily in 2020. If the Ravens get a passing game going, they'll be just as dangerous as they were in 2019, especially with their vaunted defense. Could be another classic.

Colts vs Titans- Weeks 3 & 8

With the new coaching staffs in Jacksonville and Houston, these look like the only two playoff contenders in the AFC South. Both teams made the postseason in 2020, but there are some major changes. Colts QB Philip Rivers retired, and the team traded for Carson Wentz. While Wentz had a horrific 2020, he is now reunited with Frank Reich, who coached him to an MVP-caliber season as a QB coach in Philadelphia. If Reich can get Wentz to rediscover that performance level, he could be in for a great season and his running ability adds a dynamic the Colts have never really had under center. Tennessee has found its offense in the past couple of seasons, but TE Jonnu Smith, WR Corey Davis, and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith have all moved on. I wouldn't expect the new system to be much different, so expect a lot more of Derrick Henry, These games tend to be either shootouts or bereft of scoring. With the unpredictability of each offense, this will be interesting to say the least.

Buccaneers @ Rams- Week 3

Two of the top contenders in the NFC. Tampa brings back every single player from its Super Bowl-winning roster. The Bucs had a slow start but really found a groove late last season, riding an emerging offense to a Super Bowl title. The Rams have been a playoff team and were in the Super Bowl themselves just two years ago. They clearly have the defense, and the addition of QB Matthew Stafford should put LA over the top. Although both teams will finish the year among the league leaders in defense, this could be one of the highest scoring games of the year.

Seahawks vs 49ers- Weeks 4 & 13

This one is only interesting if San Fran bounces back. On paper, the Niners have one of the most complete rosters in the league with a menacing defensive front. Seattle didn't have many resources to work with in the offseason and still has not beefed up the offensive line for Russell Wilson. Known mostly for defense, the Seahawks are not nearly as dominant in that area these days. Protecting Wilson against that front will be huge as Seattle has to lean on its offensive playmakers. While the 49ers only have a couple household names on their own offense, the system really doesn't require superstars to be successful.

Buccaneers @ Patriots- Week 4

Tom Brady returns to New England after winning a ring in his first season with another team. The storylines are all over the place for this one. Belichick missed the playoffs without Brady, but the Pats' roster was not nearly as good as it has been--particularly on offense. The lone offensive weapon for New England, Julian Edelman, has retired. The Pats should be a better team with key defenders returning and Mac Jones at quarterback, however Tampa's offense may be too stacked for New England to keep up.

Rams vs Seahawks- Weeks 5 & 15

Another test for the Seattle o-line. The Rams defensive front, as a whole, isn't as good as the 49ers, but they have a generational player in Aaron Donald. He'll command double and triple teams and allow others to get free runs on Russell Wilson. The Rams may still be finding their offensive rhythm in the first meeting but should be clicking on all cylinders by the time Week 15 rolls around. It's a great divisional matchup of a couple of the league's best offenses and should be close throughout both games. Week 5 will be nationally televised on Thursday Night Football.

Bills @ Chiefs- Week 5

Kicking off the second quarter of the season with yet another battle between AFC contenders. Kansas City's offense has given the Bills trouble in recent games and is just as good as usual, despite a few losses. The Chiefs elected to revamp their offensive line by releasing both starting tackles and making a change at center. They've been praised for finding quality replacements, but the chemistry could still be a work in progress. The matchup of Buffalo's young pass-rushers and supposedly improved defensive line against the KC o-line will be interesting to watch. The Bills will need to keep the Chiefs' offense balanced and not allow them to take advantage of a previously porous run defense that has doomed them in previous meetings.

Colts @ Ravens- Week 5

More AFC playoff contenders. The Colts offense will be challenged in this one because of a lack of offensive weapons. Indy's skill players aren't bad, but there are very few of them that would cause a defense to make significant changes to the game plan. Indy does have a defense that can keep it in this game. The Colts finished last season with the second best run defense in the league. Therefore, Baltimore may have to rely on its revamped passing attack to win this game. I can see Baltimore winning a blowout or a close, defensive game. The winner will likely be determined by quarterback and offensive line play.

Saints @ Seahawks- Week 7

This may be a meeting between NFC playoff contenders, but only if the Saints can get good enough performances from their quarterbacks. Drew Brees's retirement will be no easy hurdle to overcome. Taysom Hill has filled in as a starter because of injuries, but no one really knows if he can be a full-time starter. The last time Jameis Winston started, he threw 30 interceptions in a single-season despite amassing 5,000 passing yards and 33 touchdowns. Sean Payton is a great QB coach and should be able to get the most out of either with the offensive weapons on the roster. Assuming a close to normal Saints offense, New Orleans should be a low-end playoff contender-- making this a notable game. I'd expect a shootout, although New Orleans has a better defense.

Steelers vs Browns- Weeks 8 & 17

This has become a great rivalry over the years and has gotten even better as Cleveland improves. Although the Steelers have owned the series, the Browns got the best of them in the Wild Card playoff round last season. It was Cleveland's first postseason since 2002 and sent expectations for 2021 sky high. The Browns are now a legitimate contender in the AFC North, and we are now questioning whether Pittsburgh has the depth to keep up. How the Steelers fare in these games will go along way toward determining if they are still a contender in 2021.

Buccaneers vs Saints- Weeks 8 & 15

Top two teams from the NFC South in 2020 should make for great games. New Orleans owned Tampa in the regular season, but the Buccaneers won the third matchup in the playoffs. Once Tampa found its offense, it was unstoppable. The scales have tilted with Brees gone from New Orleans. The Saints still have a solid defense, but the weapons in Tampa will make things difficult.

Packers @ Chiefs- Week 9

This game, along with all other Packer games, loses its meaning if Aaron Rodgers is not under center. With Rodgers, this is easily a meeting between Top 5 offenses and a high scoring affair. Without Rodgers, Green Bay is a much worse team and will struggle to stay afloat.

Seahawks @ Packers- Week 10

Another game dependent on Rodgers. If things stay the same, this will be a duel between two of the league's premier signal-callers. Unlike the KC game, Green Bay can still make things interesting if Rodgers is playing elsewhere. Neither defense is elite by any stretch these days, and Seattle is prone to some off days now and then. It would likely take a spectacular performance from the GB defense to win without Rodgers, but it's far from impossible.

Rams vs 49ers- Weeks 10 & 18

Two great offensive minds pitted against each other in Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan. The NFC West is loaded once again this year, and every divisional matchup will be huge. These teams also have the top two defenses in the division, which should make for an entertaining game and chess match between the offensive gurus. These two teams seem to be pretty evenly matched and each game could come down to the wire. The season finale in Week 18 could even decide the division.

Bills @ Saints- Week 12 (Thanksgiving)

The Thanksgiving slate isn't too bad this year, and this one will highlight as the nightcap. Both teams should be in contention for playoff berths in their respective conferences and will have good offenses with underrated defenses. With Buffalo's recent run defense struggles, Alvin Kamara could be in for a big day. On the opposite sideline, the Bills may have a challenge getting the passing game going and should lean more on the run, unless they fall too far behind.

Browns vs Ravens- Weeks 12 & 14

The Ravens are the class of the AFC North going into this season, but Cleveland is expected to challenge them for the crown. With Pittsburgh expected to take a step back, the division winner could come down to these two. It's always an intriguing rivalry since the original Browns franchise left for Baltimore to become the Ravens in the late 1990s. However, this may be the most competitive year yet. The AFC North rivalries are usually physical, tough games and these should be a couple of the best games the division gives us this year.

Ravens vs Steelers- Weeks 13 & 18

We will know if Pittsburgh is a legitimate playoff contender by the time we get to these games. If the Steelers aren't in the hunt, these games lose some intrigue. However, this series has become one of the classic, must-watch NFL rivalries and should still be a good game. Even if Pittsburgh is out of it, the team knows how to compete and we may get a glimpse of where this division is heading.

Rams vs Cardinals- Weeks 4 & 14

We know the Rams will be in the playoff hunt. The question will be if Arizona can make the next step and get there itself. Kyler Murray causes unique challenges for defenses and has plenty of weapons at his disposal. The defense even displayed vast improvement in 2020 and got even better in the offseason. If the Cardinals can find a legitimate number two receiver, they should be in the hunt-- making these two pivotal division games. I think the Rams defense is better equipped to handle Arizona's style of offense and should give LA an advantage.

Bills vs Patriots- Weeks 13 & 16

The Bills ousted the Patriots as AFC East Champs in 2020. As I have state previously, Buffalo is one of the intriguing, up-and coming, young teams and has aspirations of reach the Super Bowl. The Patriots will be a better team this season as key defenders like Dont'a Hightower return to the field after opting out of the 2020 season. Unfortunately for New England, it's currently an offensively driven league and Buffalo has one of the best. The Patriots have added some players on offense that should result in an improved unit, however they still don't have the gamechanger they so desperately need. It wouldn't surprise me if they split the two meetings, but Buffalo has a much better roster.

Washington vs Cowboys- Weeks 14 & 16

Washington won the division last year thanks to its stellar defense and should be favored to do it again this year, but Dallas and New York will have something to say about that. While Dallas had a pitiful defense in 2020. the offense with a healthy Dak Prescott more than makes up for it. The Cowboys tried to revamp their defense with many draft picks and the hiring of Dan Quinn as the new defensive coordinator. Washington has been led by its defensive line and added some better linebackers , like rookie Jamin Davis, who should improve the unit. Washington also added more receivers to attack opposing defenses and will no longer have to solely rely on Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson. Veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is the wild card for Washington, but the landscape of this division seems to point toward these two teams. The fact that they play each other twice late in the season should make for a heated playoff chase.

Rams @ Ravens- Week 17

Both teams are juggernauts on both sides of the ball, especially if Baltimore rediscovers its passing game from 2019. The Rams weakest spot on offense is probably the offensive line, which will be challenged by a deep defensive front for Baltimore. The Ravens will have to show they can be more multidimensional to keep the Rams defense on its toes. Meanwhile, the Rams have scoring potential on offense and are hoping Matthew Stafford takes them to the next level.

Seahawks vs Cardinals- Weeks 11 & 18

Again, this game will depend on how much Arizona improves this season. It's entirely possible one or both of these teams will be out of contention in Week 18 but equally plausible they are playing for the division title. I expect these games to be high scoring because of the explosive offenses and average defenses. Seattle will need to show improvement in the secondary to rein in the Cardinals, while Arizona will have to avoid the untimely mistakes and lackluster performances it has had after its bye weeks.

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