NFL power rankings 2021: Chiefs still No. 1 in way-too-early projections; 49ers, Cowboys rise as Saints, Steelers tumble

Super Bowl 55 is done, with Tom Brady’s Buccaneers finishing at the top of the NFL heap to end the 2020 season. But that also means it’s a perfect way-too-early time to consider how all 32 teams project to stack up against each other from best to worst for 2021.

Despit the Buccaneers’ championship run, the Chiefs are again the early favorites to win it all with Patrick Mahomes like they were after earning their rings a year ago.  A lot of the teams that just fell short in the AFC and NFC playoffs also figure to remain contending heavyweights.

Knowing that league fortunes can see dramatic change from one season to the next, here’s a longview look ahead with Sporting News’ first power rankings of the year:

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NFL power rankings for 2021 season

1. Kansas City Chiefs

Mahomes gives the Chiefs an extremely high floor and they don’t have too many issues with personnel drain yet in 2022 with their core players still around or getting to their primes.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tom Brady made a two-year commitment and this young team otherwise should be considered the clear NFC favorites, rising from wild-card status with the Saints expected to slip in the South. The key will be navigating through the free agency of wide receiver Chris Godwin and linebackers Lavonte David and Shaquil Barrett.

3. Buffalo Bills

The Bills need to keep working to push the Chiefs in the AFC and already know they have the quarterback to get them there in Josh Allen. Look for a bump in running game and defense to help toward that end.

4. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers isn’t going anywhere and their running game will go on with great success, with or without Aaron Jones. They also made a needed defensive shakeup in dismissing Mike Pettine. The Chiefs made a similar change a couple years ago and shot up because of it.

5. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams lost Brandon Staley but they still can field a dominant defense with their plus talent, with a couple of key re-signings from linebacker Leonard Floyd and defensive backs Troy Hill and John Johnson II. Matthew Stafford gives them a much higher offensive floor and ceiling.

6. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens found their groove with Lamar Jackson in the second half of 2020 and their defense was steady against both run and pass when healthy for most of the way. Here’s to getting a little more explosive and reliable around Jackson in the passing game to build off their strong running game.

7. Cleveland Browns

The Browns scratched the surface of their offensive potential with Baker Mayfield under Kevin Stefanski. Defensively, they will shore up some holes in the front seven around Myles Garrett and be healthier in the secondary. They now have the wild-card winning experience off which to build.

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8. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers were an injury-ravaged mess on both sides of the ball. They should rebound in the defensive front seven with NIck Bosa healthy and work on getting reinforcements to overcome a secondary full of free agents. The offense will return to buzzing at a much higher-level with all the key skill players pushing Kyle Shanahan’s scheme toward its ceiling.

9. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks are trying to find more juice and less predictability in their offense with a new scheme for Russell Wilson. Their defense, even with some vital pieces such as Bobby Wagner and Jamal Adams, must continue to rebuild with more reliability in the pass rush and secondary.

10. Miami Dolphins

Tua Tagovailoa should get plenty more offensive skill and line help in Year 2, assuming he’s still the quarterback. The defense for Brian Flores is an exceptional unit that can also get better in the pass rush and second level.

11. Los Angeles Chargers

Justin Herbert and the offense should keep humming along with top skill players and definite line improvements. Defensively, Staley’s influence will get the best out of Joey Bosa and the rest. Watch out for them emerging as a strong second-best to the Chiefs in the AFC West again.

12. Dallas Cowboys

This might seem high for the Cowboys, but this is how much a healthy return of Dak Prescott, locked and loaded with a long-term deal, would mean to them, a lot offensively and some defensively, too. MIke McCarthy can build on how he coached better in the second half with his new team in 2020.

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13. Tennessee Titans

The Titans can feel good about remaining a dangerous offensive team with the 1-2 punch of Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown and figure to be aggressive making some key defensive changes to help them with the pass rush and outside secondary coverage.

14. Arizona Cardinals

Kyler Murray and Kilff Kingsbury had them on the verge of the NFC playoffs with a run-heavy attack buoyed by some improved downfield passing. Their defense also showed how many playmakers it had. They might be out of luck to get in the tournament again, however, in a division that’s only getting stronger.

15. New Orleans Saints

The Saints are bound for a drop based on the strong possibility of Drew Brees retiring and some upcoming key defensive defections. The Buccaneers will continue their mojo with Brady to displace them atop the division.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers could see Ben Roethlisberger retire or move on from him. They also have a slew of offensive and defensive free-agency concerns for Mike Tomlin’s aging team.

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17. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have a good defensive foundation and will remain sturdy in the running game. But it’s hard to project them higher than this with quarterback becoming the great unknown again.

18. New England Patriots

The Patriots should be better in many areas with improved health of veterans and improved play from youngsters. But they stay in the middle of the pack until we know whether Bill Belichick can find a much better post-Brady QB answer in 2021.

19. Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles need to figure out whether it’s Carson Wentz or Jalen Hurts starting for offensive-minded new coach Nick Sirianni. There’s a good bet the former rebounds or the latter breaks through. They have the potential to flip back into an efficient high-scoring unit. Defensively, they will need to adjust to a new scheme with key secondary changes.

20. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons should become a better balanced offense with Arthur Smith while also getting the most of explosive receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley for Matt Ryan. Defensively, they have a good baseline against the run but need to do much more edge rush- and secondary-wise to rise against the pass.

21. Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders are playing their game with Derek Carr again, despite his standout season. There is less concern offensively than finding the right pieces to put everything together defensively, where they aren’t void of talent for new coordinator Gus Bradley.

22. Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings have become more of an offensive team with Dalvin Cook and Kirk Cousins, but their defense will require a continued overhaul for Mike Zimmer.

23. New York Giants

The Giants could shoot up to be an NFC playoff team, but that’s all dependent on much better offensive health and a true breakout season from Daniel Jones. Their strengths still lie defensively for now.

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24. Washington Football Team

Wasihington doesn’t need to worry much about defense as the backbone for Ron Rivera. It also can run the ball. But It needs to find a legitimate quarterback solution and a more dynamic passing game, given WFT can’t expect to be sub-.500 and a division winner again.

25. Carolina Panthers

File the Panthers as another team that will go as their quarterback decision goes. Their offense can have a high floor with a healthy Christian McCaffrey, but they need more trust in the passer to become a complete, dangerous group. Defensively, look for them to put in more key pieces around Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn.

26. Chicago Bears

The Bears just made the playoffs as a mediocre unit with a defense that didn’t exactly dominate and an offense with serious quarterback issues. That’s a hard formula to duplicate with the NFC about to get only top-heavier.  Like WFT and the Panthers, who knows where the Bears will go at QB?

27. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals might take a few more defensive lumps in free agency. They can compensate with more balanced and explosive offense led by a healthy Joe Burrow and a healthy Joe Mixon. Don’t be surprised if they displace the Steelers, but the Ravens and Browns can still stack the AFC North odds against them.

28. Jacksonville Jaguars

Urban Meyer and Trevor Lawrence must make this team considerably better right away, right? With the Colts, Titans and Texans dealing with various issues, there’s potential for a quicker-than-expected turnaround with smart, calculated work in free agency and the draft.

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29. New York Jets

The Jets also should feel.a shot of confidence by making a wise leadership hire in Robert Saleh. They could get a few notches higher based on the work they do to overhaul their offense and defense under Joe Douglas with plenty of resources.

30. Denver Broncos

The Broncos seem like the next team headed for a slide near the bottom and a coaching change in 2022. Drew Lock doesn’t feel like the QB answer and Vic Fangio’s defense might take more lumps than it gets bumps.

31. Detroit Lions

Dan Campbell and Jared Goff give the offense a new look with Anthony Lynn in charge. But the problem is how little they can fix the considerable defensive issues left behind by Matt Patricia in one offseason.

32. Houston Texans

This ranking is obviously based on them trading Deshaun Watson, keeping in mind they just went 4-12 with him with inconsistent offensive help and a sieve of a defense that also may lose its long-time leader, J.J. Watt.

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