Can Anyone in the N.F.C. Stop Tom Brady and the Bucs From Repeating?

Amid the chaos and reshuffling of an N.F.L. season played during a pandemic, the 2020 season concluded with an all-too-familiar scene: Tom Brady hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Even at the ripe age of 44, Brady could continue his title-winning ways at the helm of a Tampa Bay team that returns much of its roster. But the Buccaneers’ path to repeat as champion should be tougher, beginning with their Week 1 opponent. The Dallas Cowboys return Dak Prescott, who led all quarterbacks in passing yards through the first five games of last season before suffering a gruesome right ankle injury.

Aaron Rodgers, the reigning league most valuable player, and the Packers renewed their vows after having narrowly missed taking down Brady and company in last season's N.F.C. championship game, thanks to a, umm, notable play call. And the Los Angeles Rams traded with Detroit for the veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford in the off-season, adding fresh blood to the gauntlet that is the N.F.C. West.

Will all the retooling around the conference stop another rerun?

N.F.C. East

Dallas Cowboys (6-10)

Key additions: S Keanu Neal, DE Tarell Basham and DE Brent Urban

Key departures: DB Chidobe Awuzie, QB Andy Dalton

After a disappointing 2020 season, the Cowboys completed their biggest off-season task by signing quarterback Dak Prescott to a four-year, $160 million contract extension. Though it’s risky to guarantee such hefty money, at $126 million, to a quarterback coming off a season-ending broken ankle, Prescott's absence showed how mightily the Cowboys’ offense depends on him. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is back to his college weight, and Prescott will throw to one of the N.F.L.’s best receiver trifectas in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. But that won’t mean much if Dallas’s aging offensive line can’t buy Prescott time to find them.

New York Giants (6-10)

Key additions: WR Kenny Golladay, WR Kadarius Toney, TE Kyle Rudolph, CB Adoree’ Jackson

Key departures: DL Dalvin Tomlinson, RB Wayne Gallman, OT Cameron Fleming

Quarterback Daniel Jones slid backward in his second year in the league, but, no pressure, team owner John Mara thinks his quarterback can win a Super Bowl. To back up that assertion, the Giants brought in a true No. 1 receiver in Golladay and took Toney with the 20th pick of this year’s draft, a move that stood out for its sagacity. Those additions, with the return of Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley, and the signing of the veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph should all aid Jones’s campaign — if not for a Super Bowl, at least for a contract extension — though they won’t help much if the offensive line continues to struggle. Leonard Williams, who the team signed a three-year, $63 million contract after he posted a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2020, should help generate a pass rush.

Philadelphia Eagles (4-11-1)

Key additions: WR DeVonta Smith, S Anthony Harris

Key departures: QB Carson Wentz, WR DeSean Jackson

The Eagles are reworking their roster on the run after overhauling the core personnel that had led the team to three straight playoff berths and a Super Bowl victory. Coach Nick Sirianni replaces Doug Pederson, and the team named the second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts, who was 1-3 in four starts last season, their starter. They added the former Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew in late August but the essential question for this young team is whether Sirianni — who spent the last three seasons as the Colts’ offensive coordinator — can develop Hurts.

Washington Football Team (7-9)

Key additions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR Curtis Samuel, CB William Jackson III, LB Jamin Davis

Key departures: OT Morgan Moses, DE Ryan Kerrigan, QB Alex Smith, TE Jordan Reed

Coach Ron Rivera has continued his revamp in Washington by adding the speedster Samuel on a three-year, $34.5 million deal (Rivera coached Samuel with the Carolina Panthers) and bolstering the defensive backfield, while parting ways with stalwarts on the offensive and defensive line. In signing Ryan Fitzpatrick, 38, to replace Alex Smith, Rivera also signaled that Washington is closer to finding a new team name than a franchise quarterback.

Washington won the N.F.C. East with a losing record last season (and then gave the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers a scare in the playoffs) but a second consecutive division title should be tough with an improved Dallas in the running.

— Ken Belson

N.F.C. North

Chicago Bears (8-8)

Key additions: QB Justin Fields, QB Andy Dalton, RB Damien Williams, TE Jesse James

Key departures: WR Cordarrelle Patterson, CB Kyle Fuller, QB Mitchell Trubisky, DT Roy Robertson-Harris, OT Charles Leno

C’mon, Chicago. Let Fields throw a regular-season pass before you name a museum after him, OK? Bears fans are acclimating themselves to an alien phenomenon, hope at quarterback, after the team traded up to draft Fields, the former Ohio State star, with the No. 11 pick. Every decision now revolves around his development, but the people making those decisions are largely the same ones who dealt away draft picks, compromising the Bears’ depth at places like, for instance, offensive line.

They should have a solid defense and an elite receiver in Allen Robinson, who will be catching passes from Dalton to begin the season — but, probably, for not much longer than that.

Detroit Lions (5-11)

Key additions: QB Jared Goff, RB Jamaal Williams, WR Tyrell Williams, DE Charles Harris, DT Michael Brockers, OT Penei Sewell

Key departures: QB Matthew Stafford, WR Kenny Golladay, WR Marvin Jones, DT Danny Shelton

First-year coach Dan Campbell has said he begins each day by ordering at Starbucks two venti coffees, each with two espresso shots. All that caffeine might not be good for his heart, but then again, neither is watching the Lions. Brad Holmes, the first-year general manager, traded Stafford, the franchise’s career passing leader, to the Rams for Goff, and gutted the roster.

But the Lions are building from the offensive and defensive lines out — a sound strategy — and though that might not help them much in 2021, it could a few years from now, when they have a new quarterback.

Green Bay Packers (13-3)

Key additions: WR Randall Cobb, WR Amari Rodgers, OT Dennis Kelly, LB De’Vondre Campbell

Key departures: RB Jamaal Williams, C Corey Linsley, LB Christian Kirksey

The next 18 weeks (and beyond) are going to be captivating theater in Wisconsin, where Aaron Rodgers may or may not be playing his final games with teammates he loves, but for a front office he doesn’t. There’s no reason to doubt this could be, as Rodgers and Davante Adams suggested in dual Instagram posts before training camp started, a fruitful “Last Dance”-y kind of season for the Packers, who have more talent than any team in the conference that doesn’t have “Bay” in its name. Where Rodgers plays next season will be fascinating, clearly. But not as much as how he and his team handle this one.

Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Key additions: DT Sheldon Richardson, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, CB Bashaud Breeland, S Xavier Woods

Key departures: RB Mike Boone, TE Kyle Rudolph, OT Riley Reiff, LB Eric Wilson

Entering quarterback Kirk Cousins’s fourth season in Minnesota, the Vikings have yet to win the N.F.C. North. Unless the Packers’ team buses get detoured to Idaho every game day, that streak isn’t likely to end. Still, the Vikings have a raft of elite players — running back Dalvin Cook, receiver Justin Jefferson and defensive end Danielle Hunter — and their off-season additions improved a defense that Coach Mike Zimmer last season called the “worst one I’ve ever had.”

At the least, Minnesota figures to be average. At best, it could win double-digit games, good enough to snag a wild-card berth.

— Ben Shpigel

N.F.C. South

Atlanta Falcons (4-12)

Key additions: WR Cordarrelle Patterson, TE Kyle Pitts, RB Mike Davis, S Duron Harmon

Key departures: C Alex Mack, WR Julio Jones, S Ricardo Allen, S Keanu Neal, DE Charles Harris, CB Darqueze Dennard.

No team imploded as spectacularly — or as often — as the Falcons, who lost nine (!) games that they led last season. In theory, that won’t happen again. Any expectations beyond that? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Falcons, under new leadership at coach (Arthur Smith) and general manager (Terry Fontenot), are in transition. After trading Jones and bypassing a potential Matt Ryan successor in order to draft Pitts at No. 4 overall, Atlanta seems to be walking up a down escalator. The onus will be on the defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, who was lured out of retirement, to generate loads of pressure — and on Ryan to generate loads of points. With Ryan working in a play-action heavy offense that resembles the one from his 2016 M.V.P. season, it might be possible. In theory.

Carolina Panthers (5-11)

Key additions: QB Sam Darnold, LB Haason Reddick, OT Cameron Erving, CB Jaycee Horn

Key departures: WR Curtis Samuel, RB Mike Davis, QB Teddy Bridgewater, LG Chris Reed

The Panthers acquired Darnold from the Jets this spring in the hopes that extricating him from the Jets’ juju — and surrounding him with, you know, better players — might unlock his promise. Bold strategy. In season 2 under Coach Matt Rhule, Carolina’s prospect of contending is rooted in too many hypotheticals (if Darnold can rebound, if running back Christian McCaffrey can stay healthy, if its young defense can coalesce) to take seriously.

New Orleans Saints (12-4)

Key additions: TE Nick Vannett, DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE Payton Turner

Key departures: QB Drew Brees, DE Trey Hendrickson, DT Malcom Brown, CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Patrick Robinson

Sweet mercy, the Saints lost a lot of talent in addition to Brees. The team’s viability hinges on whether Coach Sean Payton can coax efficient quarterback play — and respectable ball security — from Jameis Winston over a full season. Either way, Winston is their best internal option, and he should benefit from playing behind a talented offensive line. Payton relishes the chance to put Winston and Taysom Hill on the field together. Good thing, too.

The defense powered the Saints last year, and with their overall playmaking cast diminished — the star receiver Michael Thomas is out indefinitely as he recovers from ankle surgery — that unit might need to offset their offensive volatility.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)

Key additions: RB Giovani Bernard, DE Joe Tryon, OT Robert Hainsey

Key departures: C A.Q. Shipley, LB Deone Bucannon

Moving some beads around the ol’ abacus, Tampa Bay’s front office performed a modern miracle in this salary-cap era: The Buccaneers managed to retain all 22 starters from the team that dusted Kansas City in the Super Bowl. Their roster, the best in the N.F.L., is loaded with absurd amounts of star power — from receiver Chris Godwin to linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Lavonte David — but also depth at every position except, perhaps, quarterback.

That isn’t necessarily a problem, since Tom Brady is fated to start there until the sun collapses. Brady quarterbacked the last team to repeat as champions — the 2004 New England Patriots — and anything less than another title for Tampa Bay, which would be his eighth, would be a disappointment.

— Ben Shpigel

N.F.C. West

Arizona Cardinals (8-8)

Key additions: DE J.J. Watt, WR A.J. Green, RB James Conner, LB Zaven Collins

Key departures: CB Patrick Peterson, RB Kenyan Drake

In two seasons, Coach Kliff Kingsbury has yet to lead the Arizona Cardinals to the playoffs. Should his team fail to reach the postseason in 2021, Kingsbury may be seeking employment elsewhere. The Cardinals return a talented roster led by quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins. They added veteran contributors on both sides of the ball by signing Watt and Green. Despite strong opposition in the division, any finish less than playing a game on Wild-Card weekend will be a disappointment.

Los Angeles Rams (10-6)

Key additions: QB Matthew Stafford, WR DeSean Jackson, RB Sony Michel, WR Tutu Atwell

Key Departures: S John Johnson III, CB Troy Hill, TE Gerald Everett, QB Jared Goff

Stafford’s arrival in Los Angeles dramatically elevates the Rams’ expectations as the team welcomes fans to its $5.5 billion stadium, which will host this season’s Super Bowl. The team returns a stout defense led by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, but any hope of a championship run depends on Stafford, whose 45,109 career yards rank fifth among active passers, but who, at 33, has not won a playoff game in three tries.

Coach Sean McVay will look to unleash the offense behind Stafford and with Sony Michel, whom the team traded for to shore up a running back rotation that lost starter Cam Akers to a torn Achilles’ tendon before training camp.

San Francisco 49ers (6-10)

Key additions: QB Trey Lance, C Alex Mack, LB Samson Ebukam

Key departures: WR Kendrick Bourne, RB Tevin Coleman, DE Kerry Hyder Jr., CB Ahkello Witherspoon

The 49ers traded three first-round picks to the Miami Dolphins to draft Lance third overall this spring. He’ll eventually replace Jimmy Garoppolo, but how soon that transition occurs depends on Garoppolo’s health and Lance’s learning curve. Since Garoppolo has played a 16-game season only once with San Francisco, and Lance showed steady improvement in the preseason, figure on his time coming sooner than later.

The team returns key starters to a defense that was decimated by injuries and boasts a potent rushing attack based on motion before the snap and passes behind the line of scrimmage.

Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

Key additions: TE Gerald Everett, OG Gabe Jackson, DT Robert Nkemdiche

Key departures: CB Shaquill Griffin, RB Carlos Hyde, DT Jarran Reed

Russell Wilson, tired of continually being sacked by Aaron Donald and other pass rushers in the N.F.C. West, caused a stir this off-season by asking for more of a say in roster decisions. Despite the fracas, and that the team did not dramatically improve its offensive line, Wilson is back and trying to make it work in Seattle, where his chemistry with DK Metcalf resulted in 1,303 yards receiving, good for sixth among wideouts last season.

In August, Seattle made Jamal Adams the highest-paid safety in the league with a four-year extension reportedly worth $70 million, in an effort to improve the defense, which allowed the 11th-most yards in the league.

— Emmanuel Morgan

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