The 2021 NFL schedule was released Wednesday, which means we only have four more months to discuss who has the easiest road, who got jobbed, who will win MVP and whether or not Jon Gruden actually knows what he's doing.
After being ravaged by injuries in 2020, the 49ers received a fourth-place schedule and appear, health depending, to have a favorable road back to playoff contention.
Of course, all questions revolve around the rookie quarterbacks. Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson will start from Day 1, but Trey Lance likely will be holding a clipboard until he pries the job from Jimmy Garoppolo. Meanwhile, Mac Jones will have to beat out Cam Newton in New England, and Justin Fields must overcome Andy Dalton and the Chicago Bears' long history of ruining quarterbacks to win the job.
Tom Brady and the Bucs are running it back, the Kansas City Chiefs have revenge on their minds and the Cleveland Browns are once again the preseason darlings with Super Bowl hype. (I might be buying that stock.)
Anyways, let's have some fun. Here are five bold predictions for the NFL season after the schedule release. (Disclaimer: These almost certainly will be wrong.)
Jimmy G keeps Lance on bench, but 49ers come up short in NFC West
While the 49ers' preferred course of action is for Lance to spend all season sitting and learning while instilling certain packages for the rookie, we know that at the first sign of trouble, the calls for Jimmy Garoppolo to be benched will come.
However, having your NFL existence on the line can be a powerful motivator. Garoppolo's arrival in New England sparked a second Hall-of-Fame run from Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers the MVP reemerged last year just at Jordan Love was buying a condo in Green Bay.
No, Garoppolo isn't the same caliber of quarterback as Rodgers or Brady, but I expect him to elevate his game in 2021 and show the rest of the league that he can lead a team to a Super Bowl even if it's not the 49ers.
Garoppolo starts all 17 games, throwing for 4,175 yards, 30 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions while leading the 49ers to a 13-4 record. While that allows the 49ers to walk into the playoffs, it's not good enough to take the NFC West crown.
Matthew Stafford outduels Garoppolo in a winner-take-all Week 18 game in Los Angeles, connecting with Tutu Atwell on a 10-yard strike with 19 seconds remaining to give the Rams a 34-30 win and the division crown.
Lance plays sparingly all season and never threatens Garoppolo for the starting job.
After the season, Garoppolo is traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a second-round pick following Ben Roethlisberger's retirement and the Lance era officially begins in the Bay.
Justin Fields follows Justin Herbert's path to OROY
At the start of last season, Justin Herbert was seen as the rookie quarterback who needed the most time to sit and develop. One who had the tools but needed to soak up NFL coaching before taking over for the Los Angeles Chargers.
That turned out to be wrong as Herbert got the starting nod in Week 2 after team doctors punctured Tyrod Taylor's lung with a pre-game injection, and he never looked back.
The Chargers rookie sensation wowed immediately, throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Justin Fields should walk a similar road in Chicago this season.
Fields, the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback in the class until January, slid all the way to the No. 11 pick in the draft where the Bears snapped him up. Like Herbert, Fields has all the tools to be a star but he enters behind veteran quarterback Andy Dalton and it appears the Bears don't plan for him to start right out of the gate.
The Bears' training staff likely is more competent than the Chargers, so I don't see an accidental needle in the lung for Dalton. But I see Fields wrestling the job away from the Red Rifle early on and going on a tear to remind all the teams who passed on him how big of a mistake they made.
Fields gets his first start in Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns and leads the Bears to an upset win. From there, the Ohio State star throws for 3,847 yards and 26 touchdowns while rushing for five more en route to winning the OROY over Trevor Lawrence and DeVonta Smith.
Mac Jones is the real deal
Cam Newton will be the Patriots' starting quarterback to start the season, but he doesn't finish there.
Jones, the No. 15 overall pick, is a perfect fit in the Patriots' offense and Bill Belichick finally hands him the keys following a Week 6 loss to the Dallas Cowboys and a 3-3 start.
The Alabama quarterback leads the Patriots to four wins in his first five starts, with the lone loss coming to Herbert and the Chargers. Jones plays his best ball down the stretch in a Week 13 and 16 wins over the division rival Buffalo Bills. Jones then throws for 350 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 18 win over the Miami Dolphins to deliver the AFC East title back to the Patriots, who finish at 12-5.
Eagles dynamic duo leads Philly to division crown
The Eagles are facing a rebuild, but one they hope will be accelerated by the tandem of Jalen Hurts and first-round pick DeVonta Smith.
The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner fell down the draft board due to questions about his size and weight, but he puts those to bed early on as he and Hurts become one of the top QB-WR tandems in the NFL.
In an NFC East with no dominant force, the Eagles hang around and sweep their final three games, all against division foes, to finish at 9-8 and win the division via tiebreaker.
The Eagles' playoff dreams die in the first round at the hands of the No. 5 seed 49ers, but it's clear a new day has dawned in Philly after Smith finishes with 83 catches for 1,282 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Bucs cruise to top seed, only 49ers provide resistance in NFC title
The Bucs were dealt a good hand with injury luck in 2020, and Tom Brady and the offense finally started to click in the playoffs as Tampa Bay marched to a Super Bowl win.
So, the defending champs brought everyone back for a run at TB12's eighth Super Bowl ring.
The "run it back" strategy doesn't have a high success rate, but with a full offseason to work together, I expect the offense to be much improved in 2021.
Brady and the Bucs open with six straight wins before falling to Fields and the Bears on Oct. 24. That's just a minor hiccup, though, as the Bucs lose only one more game the rest of the way -- a Week 14 matchup to the Bills -- and finish at 15-2 with the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Brady earns MVP honors after throwing for 44 touchdowns and 4,641 yards.
In the playoffs, the Bucs easily dispatch of the seven-seeded Arizona Cardinals, who upset the No. 2-seed Rams in the wild-card round, in the divisional round. Tampa Bay then meets the 49ers, who notched wins over the Eagles and Green Bay Packers in the first two rounds, in the NFC Championship Game.
Brady and Garoppolo trade blows all game, but a late red-zone fumble by Brandon Aiyuk gives the Bucs the ball with under three minutes to play and Brady does the rest, driving 86 yards and hitting Rob Gronkowski for the game-winning touchdown with 41 seconds remaining.
In Super Bowl LVII, the Bucs meet the Cleveland Browns, who knocked off the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, and Brady wins a duel with Baker Mayfield to put the eighth Lombardi Trophy on his wall.
During the postgame celebration, Brady announces he now plans to play until he's 50. Much like his rallying cry after Deflategate, Brady is "still here."