Countdown to kickoff

The long wait is almost over! The 2021 NFL season – the biggest in league history with each team now playing 17 regular season games over 18 weeks – kicks off on Thursday night as the Dallas Cowboys visit the defending Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As usual, the impending NFL season will serve up a dizzying array of big plays, shock scorelines and drama – on and off the field. The storylines will keep coming thick and fast all the way up to Super Bowl 56, which will be played in the stunning SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles on Sunday February 13, 2022.

Here are a few things on my radar as the new campaign gets set to unfold.

Quarterback Drama

Is the drama fully over for the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. Will Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson be completely happy once that first ball sails into the air. Or are they already going to be looking ahead to what they may hope is an exit in 2022.

Rodgers went full-on scorched earth with the Packers over the summer and was 50-50 on his retirement on the final weekend before Green Bay's training camp. And even though he has since attempted to put the worms back in the can, there is no doubt Wilson wanted away from Seattle, even going so far as to leak his preferred trade destinations. What makes this situation so intriguing is that if this pair play to their full potential, they will be serious contenders in the NFC.

Young guns

The influx of young quarterback talent into the NFL continues and I expect to see all five first-rounders play big roles for their respective teams in 2021. Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson were always expected to start right away and the excitement level is high when it comes to seeing that pair in action. But fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New York Jets should be patient – the road back to respectability could still be bumpy, just not quite as long now.

Mac Jones has won the starting job in New England and I'm fascinated to see how his rookie year pans out. Former first-round quarterback Ryan Leaf joined us on Sky Sports for our NFL 32 Live preview show and hinted at a comparison to Tom Brady. Lofty praise indeed, but hopes are high for Jones. As for the other two first-rounders, Justin Fields is being forced to wait in Chicago as the Bears go with Andy Dalton and Trey Lance may start the year behind Jimmy Garoppolo, but surely both are too good and have too much invested in them to wait in the wings for long?

Challengers to the Chiefs

The AFC is going to be fun to watch and while recent history suggests the road to the Super Bowl will run through Kansas City (the Chiefs have hosted the past three AFC Championship Games), there will be a serious bun fight for supremacy in this conference.

The Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans are the first teams that spring to mind when I think about who can challenge the Chiefs. But what about the Baltimore Ravens and their winning tradition? Or the up and coming Miami Dolphins? How about the New England Patriots or the Pittsburgh Steelers? It's going to be quite the race to represent the AFC in this season's Super Bowl.

Quarterbacks at a crossroads

As mentioned above, some young quarterbacks are about to take their first steps in the NFL. Some will break into a full sprint while others could stumble out of the blocks and even fall flat on their faces. A glance around the league today shows it doesn't always work out.

Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were the top two picks in the 2016 NFL Draft and both are already onto their second teams with much doubt over where their careers are heading. Goff is now leading a Detroit Lions team that could struggle this season. Wentz is in a better situation with the Indianapolis Colts, but he looked broken physically and mentally during his final days in Philadelphia. Can he turn it around in 2021? And what of Sam Darnold? He was the anointed one in New York but after three troubled seasons with the Jets, he is trying to salvage his career in Carolina. Take note, Zach Wilson.

Worst to first

Since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002, at least one team has gone from worst to first in every season apart from two (2014 and 2019). Last year it was the Washington Football Team. Who will it be this time around? While it always appears unlikely when looking at the runners and riders at the start of each year, the aforementioned history suggests this is going to happen.

Out of Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Jacksonville, New York Jets, Philadelphia and San Francisco, I'm backing the 49ers to rise back to the top of their division. Let's not forget this was a Super Bowl team as recently as the 2019 campaign and went through injury hell in 2020. While I would prefer to see Lance get the nod at quarterback, this team is still good enough to win the division with Jimmy G under center.

The all-important predictions

I think the competition level in the AFC is going to be fierce and the Chiefs will end up getting toppled in the postseason this time around. I really fancy the Buffalo Bills to take them down with Josh Allen having an MVP-like season at quarterback.

Over in the NFC, I cannot look too far past the Buccaneers, who returned all 22 starters from their offense and defense of a year ago. Green Bay will be in the mix if Rodgers stays the course and plays like he did in 2020 and teams such as San Francisco and Washington could make some noise. But I'm going with the Bucs to get back to the Super Bowl.

But it won't be ring number eight for Tommy! I'm backing the Bills – losers of four straight Super Bowls from 1990-1993 – to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time. I will insert an apology to Bills fans in here right now because I never get these things right!

Whoever wins the Super Bowl in February, will do so at the end of another exhilarating campaign. One I hope you will follow every step of the way on Sky Sports NFL and the BBC. Here we go again! I cannot wait and feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. Enjoy the season.