This year has been rather spectacular for Florida, or rather, Tampa Bay, in the major leagues. First, the Tampa Bay Rays surged to the 2020 World Series, cementing the team’s growth into an AL titan. Next, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers demolished the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs at Super Bowl LV to the tune of 31-9. To round off an epic year of sports, the Tampa Bay Lightning achieved the rare feat of repeating as champions and defeating the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 in the series.
Now, the 2021 NFL season is on the horizon, and the Floridian teams are all coming into the campaign with renewed or increased optimism. What’s certainly been of help is that The Athletic puts all three of the team schedules within the eight-easiest in the league, ranging from the Bucs having the second-easiest and the Fins having the eighth-easiest. So now, on the precipice of the season, one which will feature a revised and extended slate of 17 regular-season games, can Florida exceed expectations and grab some more glory for the state?
Can “The Brady Bunch,” do it again?
At the age of 43, Tom Brady was pivotal in the Buccaneers besting the Chiefs at Super Bowl LV, marking the legendary quarterback’s magnificent seventh title. That said, it certainly wasn’t all down to the offense, with the defense, particularly edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, stifling what many hail to be the best offense in the NFL. Now, the Bucs are returning after having achieved a feat that not a single other Super Bowl-winning outfit has ever done: every starter of the big game has been retained. Not since the salary cap era began in 1994 has a championship-winning team returned with all 22 of its Super Bowl starters.
So, for the first time, the rest of the NFL will have to deal with the exact same dominant unit all over again. As stated by Brady on June 11 to address the idea of becoming back-to-back champions: “just because you did something in February [don’t assume] that you’ll do it again next February.” Last season was the first time that the group was properly able to play together, so they’ll need to improve on their strengths and build in the lacking areas. Still, though, the Super Bowl-winning unit is expected to be among the frontrunners again this season. On paper, the prime contender to Tampa Bay’s crown would be a renewed Chiefs side that looks to have fixed the offensive line issue that resulted in their demise last time out.
Dolphins seeking passage to the playoffs
There’s a sense of renewed, but tempered, optimism around the Miami Dolphins again, with the superpower New England Patriots finally fading and the New York Jets staying the course. However, as the Fins are still rebuilding, many see the more established Buffalo Bills as being the top team of the AFC East; NBC Sports is expecting them to win 10.5 games, with Miami winning nine, as of May 13.
Of course, this is merely a win and a tie ahead, so a good run of games could see the Dolphins creep ahead of their rivals, especially with an extended schedule. That said, as of July 8, they’re back at +300 to win the division, behind the Bills at -152 but ahead of the +350 Pats. The front office has certainly built around their prized QB, Tua Tagoviola, bringing in deep threats like Will Fuller and college teammate Jaylen Waddle to complement DeVante Parker.
However, as noted in the preseason offensive line rankings on June 7, the Dolphins have one of the worst units in the league, but do have room to grow thanks to the inexperience of its members. Miami looks set to improve next season, likely to have a better win percentage than .625. But with The Lines accurately ranking their rivals, the Bills, as the third-best team in the league, it’ll be an uphill challenge to win the division.
All eyes on Lawrence
The campaign to ‘Tank for Trevor’ paid off for the Jacksonville Jaguars, with their abysmal 1-15 campaign reaping the rewards of 2021’s top draft pick. All eyes are now on Trevor Lawrence to guide the Jags to glory in a competitive AFC South, but those expectations should be tempered. He seems to be fitting in well alongside his newly-forged tight end, Tim Tebow, and although he threw for over 10,000 yards and 19 touchdowns, with nearly 1,000 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in three years, the NFL is a very different beast.
The rookie will get protection from his interior linemen, but question marks remain in regards to the tackles. He’s also got good receivers, a classy running back, and the defense is shaping up quite nicely. However, most would expect a sub-.500 record this season, but even a 6-11 run would mark a sufficient improvement. Few would expect a Roethlisberger-grade rookie campaign from Lawrence and this Jags unit. But he does, at the very least, have the personnel and talent to put up solid statistics to rank close to the best rookie quarterback campaigns of recent history.
As you would assume, the Buccaneers offer Florida its greatest shot at glory this season. Still, the Dolphins have the potential to break into the playoffs for the third time in 20 years, and the Jaguars can only improve.