NFL playoff predictions: 49ers, Patriots return to postseason

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NFL playoff predictions: Will it be clean sweep for NFC West? originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Every NFL season has its share of surprises. Teams that were bottom-feeders jump into playoff contention while expected Super Bowl contenders fall flat.

The 2020 season was no different.

The defending NFC champion 49ers were plagued by injuries and limped to a 6-10 finish. Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots missed the playoffs in Year 1 of the post-Tom Brady era, while Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rolled through the postseason en route to a Super Bowl title.

After a disappointing 2019, the Cleveland Browns grabbed a wild-card spot. On the other end, Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings failed to take a leap and spent January and February watching the playoffs from their couch.

Since it's June and we are in the thick of OTAs, why not have a little fun and predict which teams will make good on their postseason plans in 2021 and which teams will be on the outside looking in. (Disclaimer: I reserve the right and almost certainly will change these picks come September. And there will be no Super Bowl pick, just the 14 teams that will have a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.)

AFC East

Prediction: Buffalo Bills (11-6)

I love what the Patriots did in free agency. Yes, it ran antithetical to everything Belichick has done over the last 20 years. But he had No. 12 for all but one of those seasons, and with Brady now in Tampa Bay, the times warranted a change in approach.

But Josh Allen made a huge Year 3 leap in 2020, leading the Bills to the AFC East title and a berth in the AFC Championship Game. Maybe his incredible accuracy improvement was a one-off and he regresses, but I'll buy the Allen stock if there is any left and book the Bills for another division title. But the Patriots will be right on their heels.

AFC North

Prediction: Cleveland Browns (11-6)

Baaaaaaaaaker?! Baaaaaaaaker?!

That's right, I'm going to take a dive and almost certainly look like a fool when Cleveland goes 7-9. Kevin Stefansky arrived and turned the offense around, designing his offense to accentuate Mayfield's strengths and mask his weaknesses.

Odell Beckham Jr. will return from his torn ACL, giving the Browns' offense a dimension they didn't have in their playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The addition of John Johnson, first-round pick Greg Newsome and Troy Hill will improve Cleveland's secondary. As long as Mayfield doesn't take a step back, the Browns should be able to hold off the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title.

AFC West

Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

I don't need to say much here. The Chiefs got bullied by the Bucs in the Super Bowl, so they went out and revamped their offensive line. The additions of Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Kyle Long, coupled with the return of Mike Remmers and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, should give the Chiefs one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

As long as Patrick Mahomes stays healthy, the Chiefs should roll to the No. 1 seed.

AFC South

Prediction: Indianapolis Colts (10-7)

The Colts were good last year but Philip Rivers held them back and they were bounced from the wild-card round by the Bills. So, of course, Frank Reich and Chris Ballard made the move to go and get Carson Wentz, who is fresh off a horrific year that saw him get benched for Jalen Hurts and basically pushed out of town.

Now, I think Reich can work some of his magic on Wentz, and the Colts' roster as a whole is one of the best in the NFL. Plus, the Tennessee Titans are bound to take a step back after losing Arthur Smith, Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith. The Colts will have some early scuffles, but they'll weather the storm.

AFC Wild-Card Teams

Predictions: No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (11-6), No. 6 Los Angeles Chargers (10-7), New England Patriots (10-7)

Despite the Ravens' issues on offense, Lamar Jackson is too good to have them on the outside looking in and they'll challenge the Browns for the division.

Justin Herbert very well could take a step back in 2021, but the Chargers' roster is much improved and Anthony Lynn no longer is there wondering what the point of a clock is. The Chargers will be a preseason darling again, and as long as Brandon Staley doesn't rip off a mask to reveal himself as Lynn, the Bolts should make the playoffs.

Belichick isn't going to miss the playoffs in two straight seasons. The defense will be much better in 2021, and I think Mac Jones will eventually grab the starting quarterback job and get the Patriots back on the postseason track.

NFC East

Prediction: Who knows ... Dallas Cowboys (9-8)

I'll just throw my hands up here. The Washington Football Team might have the best defense in football, but can Ryan Fitzpatrick be good for 16 games? The Philadelphia Eagles are rebuilding and the New York Giants don't have enough on offense to warrant the pick.

That leaves the Cowboys who are allergic to winning and have a defense that is questionable at best. It's going to be another pillow fight in the NFC East.

NFC North

Prediction: Green Bay Packers (12-5)

Now, this one will change if Aaron Rodgers forces his way out or retires to host Jeopardy or whatever he wants to do.

But as long as the reigning NFL MVP is under center at Lambeau Field, I'd be foolish to pick anyone else.

NFC South

Prediction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)

The Bucs re-signed everyone from their Super Bowl run, Brady has a full offseason to build more chemistry with his teammates and now his knee is fully healthy.

As long as the Bucs can remain relatively healthy, I can't see a way they falter unless Matt Ryan has an incredible resurgence under Arthur Smith in Year 1.

Never bet against Brady, it's a lesson I learned a long time ago.

NFC West

Prediction: Los Angeles Rams (13-4)

I'm all in on the Matthew Stafford-Sean McVay combination. The Rams were one of the best teams in the NFL last season with Jared Goff running the show, and were bounced from the playoffs by the Packers after Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp were injured and with Goff playing with a broken thumb.

With their offense no longer hamstrung by Goff's limitations, the Rams should have one of the NFL's most potent attacks. That, plus a stout defense, will allow them to narrowly come out on top in the NFC West.

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NFC Wild-Card Teams

Predictions: No. 5 49ers (12-5), No. 6 Arizona Cardinals (11-6), No. 7 Seattle Seahawks (10-7)

Yeah, I'm going to do it. The NFC West is LOADED, and each team has legitimate Super Bowl dreams.

The 49ers have one of the most complete rosters in the NFL, and I expect Jimmy Garoppolo, motivated by Trey Lance's arrival, to have a big year before exiting stage left. While the Cardinals and Seahawks each have question marks, Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson have the talent to overcome them as long as Kliff Kingsbury and Pete Carroll get out of the way.

Other than the Minnesota Vikings or New Orleans Saints, I don't see a lot else to like in the NFC. The Chicago Bears are going to mess around with Andy Dalton too long to give Justin Fields a shot a playoff run, the Falcons' defense is a real issue, you can't trust Sam Darnold or Jared Goff and the NFC East is a dumpster fire rolling off a cliff.

The NFC West will beat up on itself, but roll over the rest of the competition.

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