The 2021 NFL season is here, and there are numerous storylines that will keep us intrigued throughout the year. Tom Brady enters as a reigning Super Bowl champion in his 22nd season, Matthew Stafford has a chance to reconstruct his NFL legacy with a new team in the Los Angeles Rams, and Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing for his 35th different team. All jokes aside, Fitzpatrick actually has a chance to lead a prospective contender in the Washington Football Team.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, the lead up to this season feels a bit different -- and it could end up being one of the most memorable years yet. Below, we will break down 17 reasons why the 2021 NFL season could be one of the best campaigns ever.
1. 17 games
Let's start with the obvious one. For the first time in history, the NFL season will feature 17 regular-season games. According to the NFL, it marks the first change to the season structure since 1978, when we started playing 16 regular-season games. More games = more football = more fun. It also = more money for the league, and it won't be long before we are playing 18 games. Staying healthy will be more important than ever, as will maintaining consistency. With that extra week, teams crawling to the finish line like the Pittsburgh Steelers did last year could be more liable to lose the division crown or a playoff spot.
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2. Fans return to the stands
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were not fans in attendance for much of the 2020 season. Some teams did allow fans at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs, but it wasn't full capacity. Now, the fans have the opportunity to return in full force this upcoming season, which is something to look forward to because they should be louder and rowdier than ever after being forced to miss last season. It also will be interesting to see how some of the second-year players handle this since they played their first seasons in front of invisible viewers. How will Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa handle that pressure on the road on third down?
3. Fans in Sin City
To go along with having fans back in the stands, we will have NFL fans in Vegas for the first time! The Raiders' inaugural season in Sin City was derailed due to the coronavirus, but the passion that city possesses for sports has not gone away. If the NHL's Las Vegas Knights were any indication, then the Raiders could end up having one of the best home-field advantages this season. The Raiders kick off the season at home against the Baltimore Ravens on "Monday Night Football," so Lamar Jackson better buckle up.
4. New jersey numbers
One of the biggest differences between college football and professional football is that players can't wear whatever jersey number they want in the NFL. That changed just a little bit this year, as running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, linebackers and defensive backs are eligible to wear single digits. Several notable players have taken up the league on this and traded in their number for another, such as Jalen Ramsey, DeSean Jackson, Jaylon Smith, Darius Slay and Patrick Peterson. It's going to take some getting used to, and there are those who are opposed to the new rule. Including Tom Brady.
5. Week 1 blockbusters
The NFL really hit the nail on the head with these Week 1 matchups. First off, starting the year with the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and America's Team in the Dallas Cowboys is perfect, and figures to be a ratings bonanza. Love them or hate them, for better or worse, the Cowboys are one of the most talked about teams in the NFL. Whatever happens on Thursday night will be talked about for an entire week. We also have Sam Darnold hosting his former team in the New York Jets, two division winners in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills facing off, a playoff rematch with the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs, two young Alabama QBs going head-to-head with the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots and the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year facing off in Washington as the Los Angeles Chargers come to town. Whew.
6. Single-season records could be broken
Having an extra game will also affect statistics, and could make it just a little easier to break records. We put together a list of records which could be broken in 2021. A few other interesting single-season records that could fall include the most passing yards in a season (5,477 by Peyton Manning in 2013), passing touchdowns in a season (again Manning with 55 in 2013) and then rushing yards (2,105 by Eric Dickerson in 1984.) The rushing yards record could be an interesting one, as Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans became just the eighth player to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season last year with 2,027. That ranks fifth all-time, but what makes him a must-watch player is that he gets better as the season progresses. He rushed for over 200 yards in two out of the final four games -- including 250 yards and two scores against the Houston Texans in Week 17! I bet we see at least one single-season record broken in 2021.
7. Aaron Donald record watch
Speaking of records, the great Aaron Donald has a chance to break a record that he could hold forever. Last year, Donald won the 2020 AP Defensive Player of the Year award, his third in just seven seasons. That tied him for the most AP Defensive Player of the Year awards won by a single player -- joining Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt. If Donald wins the award again this season to make it four, he has a great argument for best defensive player of all-time. Donald is just 30-years-old and has recorded at least 12.5 sacks over the last three seasons. It's possible he repeats this year -- like he did in 2017-18.
8. Brady vs. Belichick
The lead up to this game is going to rival the Super Bowl. In Week 4 on "Sunday Night Football," Tom Brady and his Buccaneers will take on his former head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots. When Brady took his talents to Tampa and formally ended the Patriots dynasty and their six Super Bowl run, we all couldn't help but wonder who was more responsible for its success: Brady or Belichick? Brady has a leg up on that debate after winning a Super Bowl in his first season apart from the Patriots, but how much are we really going to fault Belichick for last year's 7-9 campaign? We would be quick to forget it if the Patriots can become contenders again in 2021 with new quarterback Mac Jones, and it would speak volumes if Belichick could use his knowledge of Brady to defeat him in their first-ever showdown. What weaknesses of Brady's will Belichick look to exploit? Will Brady look to run up the score on his former home field? Will the two hug pregame? We all can't wait.
9. Mac Jones
Belichick has tabbed Jones as his quarterback of the future, and it will speak to the kind of coach he is if Jones finds immediate success in his system. There have been several quarterbacks who were not highly-touted who played well in New England. Former seventh-round pick Matt Cassel went 10-5 as a starter for the Patriots before being traded to the Chiefs along with linebacker Mike Vrabel for a second-round pick, Belichick also drafted Jacoby Brissett, who is seen as one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL, and then there's Jimmy Garoppolo, who went 2-0 as the starter in New England before being dealt to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round pick. Now, Belichick has a legitimate first-round prospect which he can mold. When you think about it, Jones really could extend Belichick's career if he turns out to be a star.
10. The beginning of a dynasty?
The Chiefs lost in the Super Bowl last year, but we all know they are still one of the best teams in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes will have them right back in the mix again, as he lost just one regular-season game last year, and has gone 43-10 including postseason games since he took over as Kansas City's full-time quarterback in 2018. What could be different about this year? Well, two things. For one, they made several huge additions. The offensive line was the reason they lost Super Bowl LV, and they beefed up that group in a big way this offseason. They traded for a franchise left tackle in Orlando Brown Jr., and then all of their interior lineman are brand new. They gave the bag to the already-proven Joe Thuney, drafted center Creed Humphrey out of Oklahoma and then landed the steal of the draft in offensive guard Trey Smith -- a sixth-round pick out of Tennessee who fell down draft boards due to a medical issue which appeared to have been resolved years earlier. If he turns into the star he appears to be, GMs have only themselves to blame for gifting him to Kansas City.
The other reason why the Chiefs could be set to start a dynasty is a renewed motivation. As we mentioned previously, Kansas City has lost just 10 games with Mahomes under center. Winning happens a lot for them, but getting crushed on the biggest stage possible hurt. Tight end Travis Kelce told us this offseason that he wants his second Super Bowl title more than his first, and Mahomes is already eyeing the first 20-0 season. The Chiefs could officially claim the dynasty tag if they win another Super Bowl.
11. We could get a first-time Super Bowl winner
There are 12 teams that have never won the Super Bowl, but that list could be shortened to 11 this year. The Bills are a great example. Josh Allen and Co. made it to the AFC Championship last year before being defeated by the Chiefs, and could take another step forward in 2021. Another team in the Titans made the AFC Championship game a couple of years ago on the backs of Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill, and have now added Julio Jones to the mix. Then there's the Browns, who could end up being one of the best teams in the NFL with their loaded offense and some of the additions they made on defense this offseason. We also have a dark horse in the Chargers, who have found their new franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert. We saw what he's capable of in just 15 games, could you imagine if he took his play to another level in 2021? Additionally, this Chargers franchise has been decimated by injuries for years now. If that defense can maintain its health this season, they will surprise people.
12. Aaron Rodgers' 'last dance'
The reigning NFL MVP returned to the Packers after reportedly asking for a change of scenery, and also said he was pretty close to retiring this offseason. One concession the Packers reportedly made was that they would revisit Rodgers' situation at the end of the year. That leads many to believe this could be his last season in Green Bay. After making the NFC Championship game two years in a row, the 2021 season has somewhat of a "last dance" feel to it. Rodgers and his No. 1 target Davante Adams both even posted matching Instagram posts referring to "The Last Dance," the documentary about the final season of the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty, this offseason. We learned last year that a motivated Rodgers is a force to be reckoned with, and we bet he's just as motivated entering this season.
13. Urban Meyer in the NFL
Meyer is a legendary college head coach. He's had a hand in the development of some of the best players in the NFL and is a three-time national champion. Going 187-32 is a pretty absurd mark. Still, the NFL is a different world, and there's no guarantee he will find success as a leader at the professional level. The hire itself was a sexy one, but that appeal wore off fairly quickly before we even reached the regular season. Meyer made a controversial hire in Chris Doyle which didn't last long, tried Tim Tebow out at tight end, held a "quarterback battle" despite using the No. 1 overall pick on Trevor Lawrence and then admitted publicly he had vaccination status in mind on cut down day -- which led to an investigation from the NFLPA. Some Jaguars players aren't thrilled with Meyer and the way he operates, so the 2021 season will be an interesting one.
14. QB youth movement
The quarterback is the most important position in football, which is why teams are so aggressive in free agency and in the draft if they are in need of a signal-caller. Many young QBs will have to prove themselves in 2021, and are always watched to see how high they can elevate their franchise. Among them are Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Justin Herbert and Trey Lance, but the AFC East is really where we see a youth movement. All four quarterbacks who will start Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season in the AFC East are under the age of 26. It will mark the first time in 36 years that four starting quarterbacks in the same NFL division were under the age of 26 at the start of a season. The Bills secured their franchise quarterback Josh Allen (25) with a record-breaking extension this offseason, Tua Tagovailoa (23) is entering Year 2 for the Dolphins and then the rookies Mac Jones (23) and Zach Wilson (22) get their first NFL action as well. Not all of these players will pan out, but it will be fun to see how quickly the young guys can develop.
15. Notable QBs reintroducing themselves
There are many quarterbacks who are beginning new chapters in 2021. Among some of the notable ones are Matthew Stafford, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. Now, Prescott isn't playing for a new team, but he is coming off of a major ankle surgery and finally secured the bag that he has been pursuing for years now. With that security in mind and a loaded offense, the Cowboys could be a dominant team, and Prescott could win Comeback Player of the Year.
Stafford is seen as a "good" quarterback, but his Detroit Lions never accomplished much (0-3 in the postseason since 2011). Now that he finds himself with the Rams -- a team with a top-ranked defense, a solid supporting cast and an offensive-minded head coach who made the Super Bowl a few years ago -- Stafford could prove to the NFL world that he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league. As for Winston, he's a gunslinger who can rack up yards and touchdowns with the best of them, but he does struggle to take care of the ball. In his last season as a starter with the Buccaneers in 2019, he threw a league-leading 30 interceptions. Maybe a season under the tutelage of Drew Brees and Sean Payton will help correct those issues, and his playing style adds something significant to this offense.
16. Ryan Fitzpatrick to the playoffs?
"The Beard" has become a fan favorite in the NFL. When he starts for Washington on Sunday, it will be the ninth team he has started for -- something no other quarterback has done. While "FitzMagic" has had plenty of small bursts of on-field success, he has never started a postseason game. That could change this season.
Washington won the NFC East with a 7-9 record last year, but their offense ranked towards the bottom of the league and they rotated through four different quarterbacks. In fact, in their wild-card matchup against the Buccaneers, Washington started a former practice squad player in Taylor Heinicke. Fitzpatrick is not the long-term answer in Washington, but he can at the very least provide some stability for this offense through one season -- an offense which made some intriguing additions in Curtis Samuel, Dyami Brown and Samuel Cosmi. Fitzpatrick could complete his feel-good story by starting a playoff game, and maybe winning one.
17. Super Bowl in SoFi
The 2021 NFL season will end in beautiful SoFi Stadium -- located in Inglewood, California. The state-of-the art facility opened in September of 2020, and has seating capacity that can expand to 100,000. According to the Chargers' website, SoFi Stadium is 3.1 million square feet and its campus is 3.5 times bigger than Disneyland. The stadium's wild double-sided video board weighs 2.4 million pounds.