A fresh NFL season is set to kick off on September 9, and as always, sports writers need to lock in their picks before opening kickoff for the eventual Super Bowl matchup. Predictions on which teams may play in and win Super Bowl 56 in SoFi Stadium may change over the course of the season, but there’s something special about getting it right before the season begins and before we see which teams emerge as this year’s top contenders.

Of course, there’s some favorites, and the betting odds right now favor a rematch between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This is understandable, as there’s no reason to believe the two best teams from last season will fall off this year. But only one time in NFL history has the Super Bowl featured the same two teams in back-to-back years: the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills met in Super Bowl XXVII an XXVIII, with the Cowboys winning both matchups.

The Chiefs will be looking for their third straight Super Bowl appearance, and though they’ve been dominant in the Patrick Mahomes-era, there’s still plenty of contenders in the AFC. The Buffalo Bills gave the Chiefs a hard fight in last year’s AFC Championship, and could be on the cusp of breaking through to the big game. With a playoff win finally under his belt, Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens are also a formidable opponent come playoff time. The Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Los Angeles Chargers all have a fighting chance as well in the conference if everything goes their way.

In the NFC, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren’t even the best regular season team last year, but still won the Super Bowl from a wildcard position. The Green Bay Packers, who have fallen just one game short each of the last two seasons, will be back in contention once again with Aaron Rodgers. With a healthy Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys could make noise in the postseason. And the NFC West is loaded with talent: any of the four teams could theoretically make a Super Bowl run, from the always strong Seattle Seahawks to the Los Angeles Rams with new quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Previous Predictions

2020-21 NFL Season: Baltimore Ravens over Seattle Seahawks

2019-20 NFL Season: Kansas City Chiefs over Chicago Bears

SEE ALSO: My early, pre-free agency look at the Top Ten Super Bowl 56 Contenders

2021-22 NFL Playoff Teams

The playoff bracket will be determined by the final standings that I’ve projected over the course of the last month. For a full team-by-team breakdown, and to see why you favorite team may or may not be here, check out my divisional breakdown of the league for the 2021-22 season.

Following my predictions, the playoff seeds in each conference are as follows:

AFC

  1. Tennessee Titans (14-3)
  2. Buffalo Bills (13-4)
  3. Baltimore Ravens (13-4)
  4. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
  5. Cleveland Browns (11-6)
  6. Los Angeles Chargers (10-7)
  7. New England Patriots* (10-7)

*I picked the New England Patriots to make the playoffs before they unexpectedly released Cam Newton and named Mac Jones the starting quarterback. While I’m not sold on the rookie quarterback leading New England back to the playoffs, I’ll give Bill Belichick and the Patriots the benefit of the doubt and assume they know what they’re doing. If not, the Miami Dolphins or Pittsburgh Steelers could steal the last wildcard spot.

NFC

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
  2. Green Bay Packers (12-5)
  3. Seattle Seahawks (11-6)
  4. Dallas Cowboys (10-7)
  5. Los Angeles Rams (10-7)
  6. Arizona Cardinals (10-7)
  7. New Orleans Saints (10-7)

Wildcard Round

AFC

Photo: Baltimore Sun

#2 Buffalo Bills over #7 New England Patriots*

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills are becoming an NFL powerhouse, and after earning the second overall seed in the conference, they should be able to take care of the seventh seed at home with relative ease. Whether it’s the Patriots, Steelers, or Dolphins, my pick would remain unchanged, as the Bills would advance to the Divisional Round.

#3 Baltimore Ravens over #6 Los Angeles Chargers

I like the Los Angeles Chargers chances to make the postseason in Justin Herbert’s second year in the league. But the Baltimore Ravens will be too strong of an opponent for the Chargers to overcome. Lamar Jackson and company may even put up a huge day on offense, squashing the Chargers before they even have a chance to get rolling.

#4 Kansas City Chiefs over #5 Cleveland Browns

In a rematch of two teams that met in the postseason last year, the Kansas City Chiefs come out on top on again. While I do have the Chiefs cooling off in the regular season this year, I assume they’ll be ready to go in playoff form come January. If the Cleveland Browns were able to win this game, however, the AFC would be absolutely wide open for the taking.

NFC

Photo: Cards Wire/USA Today

#2 Green Bay Packers over #7 New Orleans Saints

Even without Drew Brees, I see the New Orleans Saints as a pretty good football team with a talented roster, and I trust Jameis Winston can will them to the postseason even if New Orleans isn’t in the race for the NFC South crown. The Green Bay Packers are just too good of an opponent to overcome in the first round, especially with Green Bay’s homefield advantage.

#3 Seattle Seahawks over #6 Arizona Cardinals

Seattle is an incredibly tough place to win as a road team, though the Los Angeles Rams did just that last postseason. If the Seahawks are matched up with the Rams again, there could be trouble. As much as I like Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals, I don’t think they win this game unless they play a perfect game, or Russell Wilson and the Seahawks slip up.

#5 Los Angeles Rams over #4 Dallas Cowboys

I hate picking all favorites in the playoffs, and the Los Angeles Rams are the only team I’m picking to win from a wildcard position. Even then, they would likely be favored in this matchup. Despite identical 10-7 records, I’m much higher on the Rams, they just play in a tougher division. This could be a fun one, but ultimately the Rams defense will be too much for Dak Prescott and the Cowboys to overcome.

Divisional Round

AFC

Photo: Chiefs Wire/USA Today

#4 Kansas City Chiefs over #1 Tennessee Titans

I have the Tennessee Titans finishing with not just the best record in the AFC, but the entire NFL, somewhat of a bold prediction. I love the Julio Jones addition to a team that has already made the postseason in back-to-back years. Ryan Tannehill even led the Titans to the AFC Championship in the 2019-20 season, but fell to the Kansas City Chiefs. Last season, the Titans were one-and-done as they lost a playoff rematch with the Baltimore Ravens. While I see Tennessee as a regular season powerhouse this year, I’m not sold that they can go toe-to-toe with the league’s best offenses in January. If the Titans can draw a weaker opponent than the Chiefs (aka any other team realistically,) then Tennessee would have a shot at hosting the AFC Championship. But at this point, I can’t confidently pick them over Mahomes and the Chiefs.

#2 Buffalo Bills over #3 Baltimore Ravens

This is a tough one, as both the Bills and Ravens have what it takes to reach the AFC Championship and even the Super Bowl. This exciting matchup would pit two of the league’s best quarterbacks against each other in what could be a back-and-forth football game. Both quarterbacks can do damage both through the air and on the ground, and both have playoff wins under their belt. At the end of the day, Buffalo’s tough defense could be the deciding factor, unless Lamar Jackson comes out and plays the game of his life.

Photo: Bucs Wire/USA Today

#1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers over #5 Los Angeles Rams

Some sports writers, including Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, are very high on Matthew Stafford and the Rams, even picking them to win the Super Bowl. The Rams will definitely be a good team this season, with a high-powered offense supported by a defense that was league-best in points allowed per game last season. However, even though Stafford is a better passer, I’m not sold on the move as a significant enough upgrade to push Los Angeles deep into the postseason. In a sense, this would be a rematch for Tom Brady, who defeated Goff and the Rams 13-3 in a low-scoring Super Bowl 54 affair. This matchup could invoke similar results: the Rams defense may limit the Buccaneers offense, but Brady’s side still comes out on top.

#2 Green Bay Packers over #3 Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks have been an incredibly solid and consistent football team for the last nine seasons with Russell Wilson at quarterback and Pete Carroll at the helm. Unfortunately, for the past few seasons, Seattle has been just a step shy of elite. And with last season’s postseason loss to the Rams, the Seahawks are anything but indestructible come playoff time. The Seahawks and Packers have made for some epic matchups in the past, from the regular season “Fail Mary” game to the January 2015 NFC Championship game where Wilson overcame three interceptions for a miraculous 28-22 overtime win that propelled the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. In this instance, the Packers win at home, and the Seahawks can blame their shortcomings on a defense that has faded over the years.

Conference Championships

Photo: AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes

AFC: #2 Buffalo Bills over #4 Kansas City Chiefs

This would mark the Kansas City Chiefs’ fourth straight AFC Championship Game appearance, a stage Patrick Mahomes holds a 2-1 record on. It would also mark a rematch of last year’s Championship Game, one where the Buffalo Bills jumped out to a 9-0 lead before Mahomes and the Chiefs did that thing where they score a touchdown on every drive. The Chiefs ultimately won 38-24, but it was still a huge step in the right direction for the Bills franchise. This year, even without a flashy free agent signing to put them over the top, I like the Bills to unseat the Chiefs and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. In my scenario, the Bills are the home team, which would give them a big advantage especially in January. If the Chiefs were the home team once again, that might change the story, but the Bills would still have a fighting chance. In this prediction, Buffalo’s defense limits Mahomes to “only” 30 points or so, and Josh Allen is able to outsmart Kansas City’s defense to send the Bills to the Super Bowl.

Photo: Fansided/Dairyland Express

NFC: #2 Green Bay Packers over #1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ironically, and not intentionally, this NFC Championship Game would also be a rematch from last season, with both the location of the game and the winning team also flipped. Tom Brady’s Buccaneers are a very good team, but they weren’t necessarily the best team in the league, their conference, or even the NFC South on a week-to-week basis last season. Tampa Bay got hot at the right time last postseason, and while I expect that to carry over to the 2021-22 season, they’re far from an unbeatable team. Aaron Rodgers returned to Green Bay after a tumultuous offseason, and the biggest reason is that the Packers have been on the cusp of making the Super Bowl for the past two seasons. This time, Rodgers outduels Brady, potentially sending the GOAT in to retirement (though who knows how long Brady will actually play.)

Super Bowl 56 Prediction: Buffalo Bills vs. Green Bay Packers

Photo: NFL.com

After both tasting defeat in their respective Conference Championship Games last season, the Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers exact revenge on the teams that defeated them, paving their way to Super Bowl 56 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

This matchup would be incredibly even and hard to pick a favorite. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers would be slightly more talented on offense, but the Bills defense could neutralize that advantage. Both Rodgers and Josh Allen posses two of the biggest arms in the league, which could lead to some high-octane play.

Winning the Super Bowl would vindicate Rodgers’ decision to return to Green Bay, and likely keep him with the franchise moving forward. For a future Hall of Fame quarterback of Rodgers’ caliber, it’s a shame he has just one Super Bowl appearance and win to his name.

But this will be the Bills year, as the Allen’s rise to an elite level continues, supported by one of the best defenses in the league. While two of the last three Super Bowls have lacked in the excitement department, this matchup should deliver as a tightly contested game with a fresh set of teams.

The Bills win Super Bowl 56 by a score of 27-24 over the Green Bay Packers, with quarterback Josh Allen taking home Super Bowl MVP honors.

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