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NFL playoff picks, predictions for 2021 AFC, NFC brackets and Super Bowl 55

A wild and weird 2020 regular season is finished. While the NFL did manage to complete a full schedule of 256 games amid the COVID-19 pandemic, plenty went awry along the way. Likewise, Sporting News’ predictions from the preseason were a mixed bag. 

The team we projected to win Super Bowl 55 finished 14-2, is the AFC’s No. 1 seed and the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions. In fact, we correctly picked five of the seven AFC playoff representatives, including the end of the Browns’ 18-year drought and the Bills’ first division title since 1995. However, we didn’t fare as well in the NFC, where we thought the historically bad NFC East would produce two playoff teams (ouch) and our prediction of the top-seeded Packers’ demise was painfully premature.

The 2021 NFL playoff bracket is bigger (though, arguably, not better) than ever before, with the AFC and NFC each gaining an extra entry.

That gives the SN staff an opportunity to make good on our misses — or get even more things wrong.

Below are Sporting News’ predictions for the 2021 NFL playoffs, complete with fresh Super Bowl picks, as NFL writers Vinnie Iyer, Bill Bender, Matt Lutovsky and Billy Heyen weigh in on the bracket, taking into account what we learned about all 14 playoff teams over the course of the season. 

MORE NFL PLAYOFFS:
AFC & NFC bracket | TV schedule | Wild-card game predictions

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NFL playoff picks, predictions 2021

Which wild-card team (5-7 seeds) is the biggest threat to win it all?

Vinnie Iyer: The Buccaneers (11-5) need to be the choice here with the GOAT QB flipping from the Patriots to the NFC. They dominated the NFC No. 1 seed Packers in the regular season and nearly came back to knock off the AFC No. 1 seed Chiefs, too. The Ravens and Lamar Jackson are intriguing as a No. 5, too, but Tom Brady is playing at an elite level and the Bucs have a complete team around him. 

Bill Bender: Ravens. Tampa Bay also is an acceptable answer, but if the Ravens can just get through Tennessee in the first round, then Lamar Jackson could make it interesting against the rest of the AFC. J.K. Dobbins is an emerging force in the running game, and the defense allowed just 10 points per game the last three weeks. Granted that was against weaker competition, but for a team that was impacted by COVID-19 this season, they are clicking at the right time.  

Matt Lutovsky: Ravens. Tampa is the easy answer because of its first-round matchup, the lack of a dominant team in the NFC, and, you know, having the best quarterback of all-time leading its offense, but Baltimore also has a favorable first-round matchup, solid defense, and, you know, the reigning NFL MVP leading its offense. The Ravens also finished the season with the biggest positive point differential (165) — 39 more points than any team in the AFC. Last year’s playoff flop likely has many counting out the Ravens, but the talent is there for a deep run. 

Billy Heyen: Ravens. The popular answer here might be the Buccaneers and Tom Brady, but Lamar Jackson’s unique talents create an immediate mismatch in whatever game he plays. Some of the Ravens’ defensive numbers are misleading thanks to mid-season COVID-19 absences, but that side of the ball is strong for Baltimore, too.

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Which of the top 1-3 seeds in either conference is most likely to be upset?

Vinnie Iyer: The Steelers (12-4) haven’t played all that well down the stretch, save for the massive comeback against the Colts. They decided to be an object at rest vs. the motivated Browns last week and now need to play the same team with a lot more in the line. The Packers, Saints, Seahawks, Chiefs and Bills all have saved their best for last in the season. The Steelers are clearly weaker overall than those five teams. 

Bill Bender: Steelers. Be careful what you wish for. Cleveland edged the Steelers in Week 17 to get into the playoffs, and Pittsburgh lost four of its last five games. The Steelers needed a big second half just to beat the Colts in Week 16. The Browns have a two-headed running game in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and Baker Mayfield has emerged as a more-efficient quarterback with first-year coach Kevin Stefanski. This will be not be an easy wild-card game in prime time for Pittsburgh.

MORE: Updated Super Bowl odds for every 2021 playoff team

Matt Lutovsky: Bills. The Steelers are playing the worst of any of the top six seeds while the Bills are arguably playing the best, but Buffalo also has a much tougher opening-round matchup. Indianapolis boasts a top-flight defense, dominant running game, and veteran QB — usually a recipe for winning in January. The Bills offense might be too good for anyone to slow down, but the Colts will have a shot. The matchups for the Steelers (vs. Browns), Saints (vs. Bears), and Seahawks (vs. Rams)  all figure to be more favorable, though the Rams defense will make things interesting in Seattle.

Billy Heyen: Steelers. There’s a part of me saying the Seahawks, but we’ll go with Pittsburgh here. Despite the Steelers’ 17-point comeback against the Colts in Week 16, this isn’t an offense that’s looked at all dangerous in the second half of the season behind Ben Roethlisberger’s aging arm and an anemic running game. Cleveland could knock them out in the first round.

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Who’s your pick for playoff MVP?

Vinnie Iyer: Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are tempting as veteran Super Bowl-winning future Hall of Famers. But these playoffs have plenty of those, including Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. That said, it’s hard to go against the best, most dangerous player in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes joined the club in impressive fashion in last year’s playoffs. It’s always Mahomes vs. the field in these types of awards going forward.

Bill Bender: Patrick Mahomes. Who else are we supposed to pick? Mahomes had nine games with 300 passing yards or more this season. He averaged 300.3 yards with 10 TDs and two interceptions in last year’s playoff, and the Chiefs and averaged 39 points per game. There are up-and-coming young challengers in the AFC, including Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield – but Mahomes remains the quarterback to beat.  

Matt Lutovsky: Patrick Mahomes. Yes, this is boring, but he’s the best QB on the best team. Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Josh Allen, among others, aren’t exactly slouches, but after watching Mahomes in the postseason last year, we have no reason to doubt him heading into another playoff run.

Billy Heyen: Josh Allen. The Chiefs and Packers will get all the praise for earning the first-round byes, but the Bills are as hot as any team in football and it’s all because of Allen. If Buffalo shocks the rest of the football world and wins the Super Bowl, which is a legitimate possibility, Allen will be the reason. 

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What under-the-radar player will become a star in the playoffs?

Vinnie Iyer: There are lot of good choices but the Packers’ secondary duo of Jaire Alexander and Adrian Amos are two fun players to watch. They are an excellent combination in pass coverage and they can contain some of the big playmakers in the NFC field. As much attention Rodgers, Davante Adams and the offense gets, the Packers will go as far as their defense can take them. 

Bill Bender: Darnell Savage. The last time the Packers made a Super Bowl run safety Nick Collins was a key piece on the back end. Green Bay might have found that player again in Savage, a second-year safety who has 31 tackles and two interceptions in the Packers’ last five games. He’s a playmaker who has the capability to make that game-changing play in a tight game. 

Matt Lutovsky: Jamaal Williams. He’s a backup running back, but Williams gets plenty of touches and has the ability to break big plays as both a runner and a receiver in Green Bay’s high-powered offense. Most important: He does full dance routines before every game. That’s the kind of extra panache a player needs to truly become a star.

Billy Heyen: Ronald Jones. The Buccaneers’ running back came up just shy of 1,000 yards in 2020, finishing with 978 in 14 games. But he’s proven to be the lead back ahead of Leonard Fournette. Despite that, he flies under the radar behind Brady and a big-name passing attack. If Tampa Bay goes on a playoff run, Jones will surely be a part of it with his strong running between the tackles and finishing ability down near the goal line. 

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What offense do you trust the most?

Vinnie Iyer: Packers. Surprisingly, the Chiefs are only the sixth-highest scoring offense in the NFL playoffs. The Packers led everyone with 31.8 points per game, impressive considering five teams averaged 30 or more points during the regular season. They’ve got Rodgers, Adams, Aaron Jones, an explosive passing game and a strong running game. There are fewer ways to shut down Green Bay than any other team in the tournament. 

Bill Bender: Chiefs. Coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and it will be even better if Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle, hip) is able to return after a four-week rest. There is speed, creativity and despite a few more turnovers late in the season, Mahomes should have everything clicking for the playoffs. It’s hard to bet against an offense that averages 415.8 yards per game. 

Matt Lutovsky: Chiefs. They’ve sputtered a bit down the stretch, but they still find a way to pull out games. As dominant as the Bills, Packers, and Buccaneers have been, the Chiefs have the best QB, the most speed, and arguably the best play-caller(s).

Billy Heyen: Packers. The injury to Clyde Edwards-Helaire gives me slight pause there, while Green Bay recently uncovered AJ Dillon to add to an already strong rushing attack. That Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams connection is just so, so dangerous. It’s hard to imagine anyone even slowing them down, let alone stopping them. 

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What defense do you trust the most?

Vinnie Iyer: The Rams have to be the choice here with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. That’s their only ticket to winning multiple games in the playoffs with one of the worst offenses (stunning for a Sean McVay team) in the tournament. The question isn’t whether the Rams will make life rough on some high-scoring talented groups, but whether they can still score enough themselves to beat those teams. 

Bill Bender: Buccaneers. The answer would have been Pittsburgh before injuries to Devin Bush and Bud Dupree, but Tampa Bay has a defense that can be Super Bowl-caliber. The Buccaneers dominated against Aaron Rodgers in a 38-10 win, and they limited Kansas City to less than 30 points in a three-point game. The offense has come around with the emergence of midseason signing Antonio Brown.  

MORE: Ranking every NFL team’s real chances to win Super Bowl 55

Matt Lutovsky: Rams. The Rams and Steelers are both dominant on every level, but Pittsburgh is a little worse at covering wide receivers. The Steelers are better at covering tight ends and force more overall incompletions, but when you’re facing elite receiver groups in the postseason, the ability to cover pass-catchers on the outside will be even more important. 

Billy Heyen: Does anyone play defense anymore? It’s probably the Rams and their duo of superstars, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Los Angeles allowed the fewest yards per pass attempt in the NFL this season while allowing the third-fewest yards per carry. Having Ramsey to shut down a No. 1 receiver and Donald to mess everything up for an offense is a good start, and an unheralded linebacking corps played well in 2020.

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Who’s your pick to win the AFC?

Vinnie Iyer: The AFC is a tougher, top-heavier field than expected with every team having 11 or more wins. That said, the Chiefs have a strong resume beating several of the teams this season and match up well with the ones they have yet to play, such as the Colts, Browns and Steelers. There’s no real obstacle to think Mahomes will fall short, especially with NFC wins over the Saints and Buccaneers, too. 

Bill Bender: Chiefs. They have home-field advantage, and Mahomes is 17-4 with a 105.7 passer rating at Arrowhead Stadium for his career. It’s always tough to repeat. Buffalo and Baltimore are interesting threats, but Kansas City beat both of those teams on the road this season. Reid gets a shot at a second Super Bowl.  

Matt Lutovsky: Chiefs. They have the experience, talent, and home-field advantage. The latter might not matter quite as much this year, but it’s not completely insignificant. The health of RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire will definitely matter, but he has a decent chance of returning for the Divisional Round. 

Billy Heyen: Bills. Considering Allen was my playoff MVP pick, have to double down here and say the Bills will make it out of the AFC. They saw Kansas City, their likely conference championship opponent, earlier in the season and should be able to adjust from a 26-17 loss. That matchup will likely come down to the Bills’ defense, which can slow Tyreek Hill with Tre’Davious White and Travis Kelce with a combination of Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde and Matt Milano. It wouldn’t be as big an upset as some might think.

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Who’s your pick to win the NFC?

Vinnie Iyer: This one is more complicated. It’s a four-team race between the Packers, Saints, Seahawks and Buccaneers. As much as Green Bay and home field make going chalk tempting, the field might make it tough. The Saints and Seahawks bring up memories of recent playoff disappointment that are hard to shake. Here’s going with the Bucs, as Brady will be motivated to show he can still stand out from Rodgers, Brees and Wilson and get another shot at Mahomes. Now that would be a GOAT story. 

Bill Bender: Packers. Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur will take advantage of Lambeau Field. The offensive line looked good enough without David Bakthiari, and that running game will be huge. Rodgers’ connection with Davante Adams is almost unstoppable, and the defense does enough to get the Packers another Super Bowl shot. 

Matt Lutovsky: Packers. The NFC is pretty wide open, but Green Bay’s offense, combined with having home-field advantage, puts it over the top. Getting Tom Brady and/or Drew Brees outdoors at Lambeau, even with limited fans, is a big advantage for a team that’s used to playing in the elements. 

Billy Heyen: Packers. Rodgers to Adams is too good. Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon and Jamaal Williams are the best three-headed rushing attack in the NFC bracket, at least. Preston and Za’Darious Smith provide a strong pass-rushing duo. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King are solid at the cornerback spots. And the NFC has to go through Lambeau Field, where Green Bay is very tough to beat.

Super Bowl predictions 2021

Vinnie Iyer: Chiefs over Buccaneers. Brady vs. Mahomes again is what we’ve got, which should surprise no one. Brady never got to directly hand over the multiple-ring torch and potential GOATness to Mahomes in last year’s playoffs with the Patriots. That transition of power happens peacefully here, in a high-scoring affair where there will be no recount needed. Here’s re-electing Mahomes as Super Bowl champion, making him the first QB to repeat since Brady. 

Bill Bender: Chiefs over Packers. Rodgers-Mahomes would produce ridiculous ratings, and the high-scoring appeal of that Super Bowl would be fantastic. Mahomes missed the Chiefs-Packers matchup on “Sunday Night Football.” There hasn’t been a repeat champion since 2004-05 with New England, which shows just how hard it is to go back-to-back. Kansas City, however, has all the tools to win it again. It’s a thriller with the Packers, but Mahomes gets it done again in a shootout.

Matt Lutovsky: Chiefs over Packers. Patrick Mahomes is too good to bet against when he’s playing at an MVP level like he is this year. He might not win the award, but he didn’t win it last year either — and we all know how that turned out.

Billy Heyen: Packers over Bills. Rodgers and Adams will prove even too strong for White and company to handle on the defensive side, and if Buffalo’s had a defensive weakness this year, it’s been occasionally on the ground, where Green Bay’s depth should thrive. The Packers could also contend with the Chiefs, Steelers or whoever makes it out of the AFC, because everything Green Bay does well will be stuff for any of those contenders to stop.

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