2021 NFL predictions: Super Bowl LVI winner, major awards, and more

Photo illustration by Nick Roy / theScore

The NFL is set to return with Thursday's season-opener between the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dallas Cowboys, and theScore's football staff is kicking things off with playoff, Super Bowl, and awards predictions for this season.

AFC

EAST WEST NORTH SOUTH WC WC WC
Browne BUF KC CLE IND BAL MIA LAC
Chippin BUF KC CLE TEN LAC BAL MIA
McClymont BUF KC BAL TEN LAC CLE IND
McGoldrick BUF KC CLE TEN BAL LAC NE
Miari BUF KC BAL IND LAC CLE TEN
Valente BUF KC BAL IND LAC CLE TEN
Washington BUF KC CLE TEN PIT NE BAL
Wilkins BUF KC BAL TEN CLE PIT LAC
Woods BUF KC CLE TEN BAL LAC NE

The Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs - who met in the conference title game last season - were a tier above the rest in the AFC, and all our editors unanimously expect that to continue in 2021. However, the AFC North and the AFC South are both seen as two-horse races.

The Cleveland Browns - who haven't won a divisional title since 1989, six years before Baker Mayfield was born - edge the Baltimore Ravens with five votes to four. Notably, no one believes the Pittsburgh Steelers can retain their crown from a year ago, likely a reaction to their late-season slump in 2020.

In the AFC South, the Tennessee Titans are clear favorites over the Indianapolis Colts, garnering six votes. It's easy to understand why. Both teams won 11 games last year, but the Titans added Julio Jones, while the Colts might have downgraded from Philip Rivers to the again-injured Carson Wentz.

Meanwhile, our editors are all-in on Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers, who won four straight games to close last season. L.A. hasn't made the playoffs since 2018, but eight of our nine editors expect a wild-card berth.

NFC

EAST WEST NORTH SOUTH WC WC WC
Browne DAL LAR GB TB SF SEA CHI
Chippin NYG LAR GB TB SF ARI MIN
McClymont WSH LAR GB TB SF SEA ARI
McGoldrick WSH SEA GB TB ARI LAR NO
Miari DAL LAR GB TB SEA MIN NO
Valente DAL SEA GB TB LAR NO SF
Washington DAL LAR GB TB SF NO MIN
Wilkins DAL SF GB TB LAR NO SEA
Woods WSH LAR GB TB SEA DAL SF

Like in the AFC, our editors see two divisions in the NFC - the North and the South - as foregone conclusions. The Buccaneers retained their entire championship core, while the Green Bay Packers are set for potentially one last ride after withstanding an offseason of strife with Aaron Rodgers.

Hannah Foslien / Getty Images

The Cowboys (five votes) and Los Angeles Rams (six votes) are also the clear favorites in the NFC East and NFC West, respectively. Dallas often fails to live up to expectations, but if Dak Prescott is healthy, it's the most talented team in the division. The Rams' acquisition of Matthew Stafford to pair with Sean McVay is viewed as a game-changing move by our editors, though two believe the Seattle Seahawks won't give up their crown that easily.

The NFC West is predicted to be the conference's strongest division. Six of our nine editors believe the division will send three teams to the playoffs, while one sees all four clubs playing in January. Though the San Francisco 49ers received just one vote to win the NFC West, six editors think they'll rebound from a down year with a wild-card berth.

AFC Championship Game

PREDICTION
Browne KC vs. LAC
Chippin KC vs. BUF
McClymont KC vs. TEN
McGoldrick KC vs. BUF
Miari BAL vs. LAC
Valente KC vs. BAL
Washington KC vs. CLE
Wilkins KC vs. CLE
Woods KC vs. BUF

Patrick Mahomes has made three straight AFC title games to begin his career, and eight of our nine editors see that streak continuing after an offseason during which the Chiefs poured resources into improving their quarterback's protection following the disaster in Super Bowl LV. Though our belief in the Chiefs is almost unanimous, our editors are split on who exactly is their biggest threat. The Bills were involved in the second-most matchups with three, while the Browns, Ravens, and, most surprisingly, the Chargers were picked twice.

NFC Championship Game

PREDICTION
Browne TB vs. SEA
Chippin TB vs. GB
McClymont LAR vs. TB
McGoldrick SEA vs. LAR
Miari GB vs. LAR
Valente TB vs. LAR
Washington GB vs. LAR
Wilkins TB vs. LAR
Woods LAR vs. SEA

Our editors are guzzling the Stafford-McVay Kool-Aid, with the Rams making the NFC title game in seven out of nine predictions. Clearly, we believe Jared Goff was the problem in L.A. The two teams that battled it out in last year's NFC title game - the Packers and Bucs - also unsurprisingly feature prominently after being unanimously predicted to win their divisions, with Tampa Bay voted five times and Green Bay four. Interestingly, only one editor sees both clubs making it back for a rematch.

Super Bowl LVI

PREDICTION
Browne TB def. KC
Chippin GB def. BUF
McClymont KC def. TB
McGoldrick KC def. LAR
Miari GB def. BAL
Valente KC def. LAR
Washington KC def. GB
Wilkins TB def. KC
Woods KC def. LAR

The Chiefs are expected to once again be the kings of the NFL. Mahomes will lead Kansas City to redemption, according to five of their seven predicted matchups, though the AFC West club came up short in two of their three Super Bowl rematches with Tom Brady and Co.

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

The Packers are the only other team to win the Super Bowl in our predictions, coming out on top in two of their three matchups. Meanwhile, our faith in the Rams comes to a screeching halt. After losing four of seven NFC Championship Game matchups, L.A. then falls short in all three of its Super Bowl appearances.

First head coach fired

PREDICTION
Browne Zac Taylor
Chippin Zac Taylor
McClymont Mike Zimmer
McGoldrick Matt Nagy
Miari Zac Taylor
Valente Zac Taylor
Washington Matt Nagy
Wilkins Kliff Kingsbury
Woods Joe Judge

Taylor's days with the Cincinnati Bengals are apparently numbered, with four of nine editors seeing him as the first head coach to face the chopping block. The Bengals have won just six games in two years under Taylor, play in one of the hardest divisions in football, and have a quarterback in Joe Burrow coming off a devastating knee injury. Elsewhere, the Bears' big swing on Justin Fields won't be enough to keep Nagy (two votes) from the unemployment line.

Best and worst free-agent signings

BEST WORST
Browne Will Fuller Trey Hendrickson
Chippin Patrick Peterson Pat Elflein
McClymont Curtis Samuel J.J. Watt
McGoldrick Curtis Samuel Andy Dalton
Miari John Johnson Bud Dupree
Valente William Jackson A.J. Green
Washington Marvin Jones Shaquill Griffin
Wilkins Jadeveon Clowney Trey Hendrickson
Woods DeSean Jackson Kenny Golladay

Our editors expect big things from what was a loaded class of free-agent receivers, with Samuel - who joined the Washington Football Team and should have plenty of opportunities thanks to the presence of Terry McLaurin - the most-picked option. Free-agent busts often happen when teams get blinded by a player's name. Former Pro Bowlers Green, Watt, and Dalton all fall squarely into this category.

Coach of the Year

PREDICTION
Browne Sean McVay
Chippin Brandon Staley
McClymont Brandon Staley
McGoldrick Kevin Stefanski
Miari Brandon Staley
Valente Brandon Staley
Washington Kyle Shanahan
Wilkins Sean Payton
Woods Brandon Staley

First-year head coaches often have the inside track to this award, which likely explains the love for Staley, who joined the Chargers this offseason. The former Rams defensive coordinator was the pick for five of our editors and the only head coach to receive multiple votes.

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

The Chargers' talent hasn't led to much success of late, but with Herbert seemingly one of the next great quarterbacks, we see Staley as the man to finally turn around the team's fortunes.

Rookies of the Year

OFFENSIVE DEFENSIVE
Browne Justin Fields Kwity Paye
Chippin Trevor Lawrence Patrick Surtain
McClymont Kyle Pitts Jaycee Horn
McGoldrick Justin Fields Patrick Surtain
Miari Trevor Lawrence Micah Parsons
Valente Mac Jones Patrick Surtain
Washington Mac Jones Micah Parsons
Wilkins Jaylen Waddle Joe Tryon
Woods Trevor Lawrence Patrick Surtain

Poor Zach Wilson and Trey Lance. Despite impressive preseasons for the No. 2 and 3 overall picks, respectively, they were the only first-round quarterbacks not to receive a vote for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Fields is set to start the season on the bench, but he still got two votes. While Lawrence only narrowly edging Jones and Fields for the most votes is surprising given the consensus view that he's the best prospect since Andrew Luck, perhaps our editors are yet to be convinced by his supporting cast and Urban Meyer's coaching abilities at the pro level.

Meanwhile, Broncos cornerback Surtain is expected to make an immediate splash in the NFL. However, the former Alabama standout is facing a tough task, as cornerbacks have taken home this award in only two of the last 20 seasons (Marshon Lattimore in 2017 and Marcus Peters in 2015).

Players of the Year

OFFENSIVE DEFENSIVE COMEBACK
Browne Derrick Henry Myles Garrett Dak Prescott
Chippin Derrick Henry Jaire Alexander Danielle Hunter
McClymont Derrick Henry Devin White Derwin James
McGoldrick Alvin Kamara Nick Bosa Nick Bosa
Miari Justin Herbert Myles Garrett Dak Prescott
Valente Justin Herbert T.J. Watt Dak Prescott
Washington Alvin Kamara Nick Bosa Nick Bosa
Wilkins Patrick Mahomes Aaron Donald Dak Prescott
Woods Christian McCaffrey Chase Young Dak Prescott

Coming off a season-ending ankle injury, Prescott is the front-runner to earn the Comeback Player of the Year award with five votes. The Cowboys quarterback was on pace to shatter Peyton Manning's single-season passing yards record before going down.

There is less consensus for the Offensive and Defensive awards, though. Shockingly, Donald - who's been named the league's top defender in three of the last four seasons - got only one vote, with our editors widely split on which pass-rusher will shine brightest. Meanwhile, Henry isn't expected to slow down anytime soon following a 2,000-yard season, with the Titans running back getting three votes to edge Kamara and Herbert.

MVP

PREDICTION
Browne Patrick Mahomes
Chippin Josh Allen
McClymont Patrick Mahomes
McGoldrick Russell Wilson
Miari Justin Herbert
Valente Russell Wilson
Washington Patrick Mahomes
Wilkins Dak Prescott
Woods Matthew Stafford

Quarterbacks have won 17 of the last 20 MVP awards, so it's not a shock to see none of our editors went off the board with their picks. Even less of a shock is Mahomes leading the way with three votes. He might be the favorite for this award every year until he retires.

Mark Brown / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Wilson, who dropped out of last year's race during the second half of the season but still had a career-high 40 touchdown passes, was the only other player to receive multiple votes

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2021 NFL predictions: Super Bowl LVI winner, major awards, and more
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