The 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

Judging draft picks in the immediate aftermath of their selection can be a foolhardy endeavour, as the success of rookies that enter the league depends on several factors including situation, opportunity and luck.

While it is tough to dole out grades for players who have not even hit the practice field for their new teams, it is possible to assess the totality of a franchise's moves in a draft and determine who has been impacted, positively and negatively, by those player selections.

In a draft dominated by a historic level of talent at the position, it is the classes of teams that made changes at quarterback that will likely have the most significant influence on the league.

After five quarterbacks went in the first round, we use Stats Perform data to determine the winners and losers from a draft that should go on to be remembered as one of the most important in NFL history.


Winners

Chicago Bears fans

Who knows whether the Justin Fields-era in Chicago will be a success? The weight of history surrounding Bears quarterbacks suggests it has a very good chance of being a failure.

But by trading up to land the Ohio State quarterback instead of committing to a year of purgatory with Andy Dalton, the Bears ensured they should be significantly more watchable in 2021, assuming post-draft talk about wanting to sit Fields behind Dalton proves false.

Fields is an exciting downfield thrower who averaged 10.10 air yards per attempt in the 2020 college season. It is an imperfect comparison given the difference in the level of competition but the two Bears starters in 2019, Mitchell Trubisky (7.94) and Nick Foles (7.92), each averaged under eight air yards per attempt.

And Fields was accurate when he pushed the ball downfield. On throws of 15 air yards or more, 76.47 per cent were well thrown, compared to 71.43 for Lawrence, 69.41 for Wilson and 67.39 for 15th overall pick Mac Jones.

His aggressive style should mesh well with number one receiver Allen Robinson, who was fifth in the NFL with 908 of his receiving yards coming at the point of reception.

Fields will also have the benefit of improved protection from a nasty offensive tackle in the form of second-round pick Teven Jenkins.

Jenkins allowed a pressure rate of 2.9 per cent in 2020, third among tackles with at least 100 pass protection snaps. The top tackle in that regard was Larry Borom of Missouri (1.8%), whom Chicago drafted in the fifth round.

Chicago also further helped Fields' cause by drafting Virginia Tech running back Khalil Herbert, who was second in the Power 5 in yards per carry (7.63) among running backs with at least 100 carries and Dazz Newsome, the North Carolina wideout who was 11th in burn percentage (71) among receivers with at least 25 slot targets. 

The Bears have been a chore to watch in recent years. It isn't clear whether the move up for Fields will work and it is debatable whether general manager Ryan Pace should have been allowed to make it given his track record, but there is finally reason for a passionate fanbase to be genuinely excited about their team.

Zach Wilson

Wilson going second overall to the Jets was no secret, but New York did an excellent job of taking steps to ensure concerns over his one season of elite production against non-Power 5 opposition do not prove prescient by surrounding him with talent.

A trade up for guard Alijah Vera-Tucker raised eyebrows but his pressure rate allowed of 1.3 per cent when playing left guard for USC in 2019 was the best in the Power 5 and suggests he can lock down that spot for the next decade for the Jets.

Wide receiver Elijah Moore brings inside-out versatility and should have gone in the first round. Instead, the Ole Miss star went 34th overall to the Jets, adding a wideout who led the FBS in receiving yards per game (149.1) last season to an intriguing group that includes Denzel Mims, Corey Davis and Jamison Crowder.

Third-round running back Michael Carter will give offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur a versatile skill set to utilise.

The North Carolina back led Power 5 runners with 100 carries or more in yards per carry (7.98) and yards before contact per rush (5.36) in 2020.

As a receiver, Carter was eighth among those Power 5 backs, who also had a minimum of 10 targets, in burn yards per target (10.86).

Carter should, therefore, be able to have a substantial impact in the zone-running scheme the Jets will employ in 2021 and influence the passing game significantly.

Growing pains are to be expected in Wilson's rookie season in New York but this was a draft in which the Jets went to great lengths to make his adaptation to the pros as smooth as possible.

Lamar Jackson

Every year, the Baltimore Ravens do an excellent job of letting the draft board come to them and reaping the rewards.

In 2020, they stole linebacker Patrick Queen in the back end of the first round. This year they grabbed arguably the most well-refined receiver in the draft, Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, with the 27th overall pick.

A truncated 2020 season in which he played just five games following a bout of coronavirus may not have helped Bateman's stock, but his 2019 tape showed a receiver who can develop into a number one target for Lamar Jackson.

Bateman can excel at all levels of the field and his downfield upside shone through in 2019, when he was open on 70.8 per cent of his targets in 2019 with an average depth of target of 16.2 yards.

His burn yards per target average of 16.15 was sixth among all Power 5 receivers with at least 50 targets two seasons ago, with Henry Ruggs III and Chris Olave the only players in the same group to produce a superior big-play percentage to Bateman's 50.4.

Big plays in the passing game have not been consistent for the Ravens. Jackson (25) had fewer passing plays of 25 yards or more than Teddy Bridgewater (27) and Drew Lock (28) in 2020.

Bateman has the talent to greatly increase that tally of explosive plays while the addition of Tylan Wallace, who was eighth among Power 5 receivers with a minimum of 50 targets last season with a burn yards per route average of 4.33, should further boost Jackson's hopes of bouncing back as a passer in 2021.

Having also addressed the interior of the offensive line by drafting Ben Cleveland, whose pressure rate allowed of 2.7 per cent was seventh among Power 5 guards last season, in the third round, Jackson goes into 2021 in an excellent position to take the passing game to levels that escaped the 2019 MVP in 2020.

In the coming season, Jackson will have much better weapons and should have improved protection. If the Ravens' offense falls short again in the playoffs in 2021, he won't have much room for excuses.

Losers

Ben Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh lost left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and the versatile Matt Feiler in free agency but did nothing to fill either of the voids left by that duo until the third round when they picked up athletic Illinois guard Kendrick Green. Tackle Dan Moore was picked in the fourth round.

Instead, they spent their first two picks on a running back and a tight end in Alabama's Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth of Penn State, stacking the offense with further weapons for Ben Roethlisberger in what will likely be his last season in the NFL.

But, beyond running back, weapons were not the need for the Steelers. Harris is an upgrade in the backfield but he averaged only 2.14 yards after contact per rush last season, below the Power 5 average of 2.21, and typically the offensive line has just as much of an impact on running game production as the back.

A failure to prioritise the trenches could result in Harris struggling to evade defenders that the O-Line has allowed into the backfield. More worryingly for Roethlisberger, the lack of a dependable replacement at left tackle could leave a quarterback who missed 14 games as recently as 2019 open to punishment from opposing pass rushers.

Roethlisberger completed 50.7 per cent of his passes when under pressure in 2020, the fifth-worst number of all quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. If this is to be his swansong, the Steelers are not setting him up for a successful one.

Trevor Lawrence

Ok, so Trevor Lawrence is a winner. He's the number one overall pick and is set to be paid millions to take his talents to the highest level.

But, in terms of the situation he is going into in Jacksonville, the Jaguars did little to help him.

With the 25th pick, they passed up the chance to boost their pass-catching options in favour of drafting his Clemson team-mate, running back Travis Etienne, following a 2020 season in which undrafted rookie James Robinson finished the year sixth in yards after contact per attempt (2.34). 

Simply put, Etienne was the definition of an unnecessary luxury pick.

Tyson Campbell was a decent value pick at 33rd overall in the second round but Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke, who developed a reputation during his time running the San Francisco 49ers for taking ill-advised risks on players with bad injury histories, picked a safety in Andre Cisco who tore his ACL in September and offensive tackle Walker Little, who has not played a game since 2019, when he featured in just one before suffering a knee injury.

The only pass-catching additions came in the form of a 29-year-old tight end, Luke Farrell, in the fifth round and wide receiver Jalen Camp in the sixth. 

Between D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones and Laviska Shenault, Lawrence does have reasonable weapons, but the Jags did not do much to add to his arsenal.

NFC West run defenses

Teams trying to stop the 49ers' ground game have had a hard time since Kyle Shanahan became head coach in 2017.

Their 224 rushes of 10 yards or more are tied sixth in the NFL in that time, and that tally looks set to increase after San Francisco drafted a franchise quarterback in Trey Lance who boasts a devastating mix of speed and power in the open field.

Lance's 14 touchdowns in 2019 were bettered by just four quarterbacks across the FBS and FCS, his rushing average of 6.5 yards fifth among signal-callers with at least 100 rushes.

San Francisco then added further to their ground game by picking Trey Sermon in the third round and Elijah Mitchell in the sixth.

In the Power 5 and Group of Five, just four running backs with a minimum of 100 attempts had a better yards per carry average than Sermon's 7.50 last season.

Burst to the second level is a key trait for Sermon, who was fourth in average yards before contact per attempt with 4.85.

The electric Mitchell, meanwhile, averaged the third-most yards after contact per attempt, putting up 3.23 per rush, a rate beaten by Javonte Williams (4.59) and Jaret Patterson (3.25).

Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. are each free agents in 2022 but, by drafting Lance, Sermon and Mitchell, the Niners ensured their run game is about to get more diverse and potentially more destructive.

For the three NFC West teams that face them twice a year, that is simply terrible news.

Highly touted quarterbacks? Check. Oversized stage? Check. Raucous Fans? Check.

A year after holding a virtual NFL Draft in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement due to concerns over the coronavirus, the 2021 draft descended on Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday, with Goodell once again sharing bro-hugs with the prospects on stage in front of thousands of vaccinated and mask-wearing fans.

Although the easy chair from Goodell’s basement did make the trip to the stage, this year’s edition of the draft felt much more normal than a year ago – and it began exactly as nearly everyone expected.

The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall and the New York Jets went with BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at number two.

Considered to be the most polished QB prospect in years, Lawrence threw for 10,098 yards in his collegiate career, while going 34-2 as a starter with the Tigers and winning the 2018 National Championship.

Wilson had been linked to the Jets for months after throwing for 3,692 yards with 33 touchdown passes to only three interceptions last season, and New York hopes he can be the franchise’s answer at QB and lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after the recently traded and 2018 No. 3 pick Sam Darnold never lived up to expectations.

A quarterback had also been projected to go third overall ever since the San Francisco 49ers traded up to that position weeks ago, the only question was who – Trey Lance out of FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Justin Fields from Ohio State or Alabama national champion Mac Jones.

The tight-lipped 49ers ended weeks of suspense by drafting Lance, who has only played in one game since the 2019 season but led the Bison to the FCS title that year while accounting for 42 total touchdowns without an interception.

With the surprising Lance going to San Francisco, this became just the third time in the common draft era that started in 1967 – and first time since 1999 – quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the NFL draft.

The consensus top five QBs - Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields and Jones – had been slated to all get drafted in the top 10, but Fields and Jones were still on the board after 10 picks.

The Chicago Bears decided not to sit on their hands, trading up nine spots with the New York Giants to grab Fields, a dual-threat QB who finished his collegiate career with 5,701 passing yards and 67 TDs through the air.

The Patriots were more patient, selecting Jones with the 15th pick – a spot few believed he would still be available. Jones threw for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns to just four picks in leading Alabama last season, and became the first quarterback selected in the first round during Bill Belichick’s 21-year tenure in New England.

Jones also became the final QB selected in the first round, making this only the fourth time at least five QBs were drafted in round number one, along with 2018, 1999 and the famous 1983 draft, when six were selected.

Not only were QBs a hot commodity, so were their targets.

The Atlanta Falcons made Florida’s Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end in history when they picked him fourth overall after he had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 TDs in 2020.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins drafted who they hope will be their franchise quarterbacks in the 2020 first round, and this year they each focused on providing them with a playmaker they were familiar with.

Cincinnati selected LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick, teaming him 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, the quarterback who led the Tigers to the 2019 FBS title. In 26 games played together in 2018 and 2019, Burrow targeted Chase 162 times, resulting in 107 receptions for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns.

One pick later, the Dolphins chose Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, reuniting him with college quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last year’s fifth pick. Waddle only appeared in six games last season because of a broken left ankle, but he left Alabama with 106 receptions for 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns over three years.

The reunions continued with the 10th pick, when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to select 2020 Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to get him back with former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, the 53rd overall pick a year ago. Smith, who put up eye-popping numbers in 2020 with 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns, was a teammate of Hurts in 2017 and 2018.

While the Bengals, Dolphins and Eagles reunited former teammates, the Jaguars decided to go ahead and just bring aboard one of Lawrence’s teammates from this past season, selecting Clemson running back Travis Etienne with the 25th pick, making this the first time in the common draft era a quarterback and running back from the same school were drafted by the same team in the first round.

Etienne was a workhorse for the past four years with the Tigers, racking up 4,952 rushing yards and 70 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Etienne became the second running back selected in the first round after the Pittsburgh Steelers took Alabama’s Najee Harris one pick earlier.

With the Denver Broncos nabbing Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II ninth overall and the Las Vegas Raiders drafting Crimson Tide offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at No. 17, Harris became the sixth player from Alabama drafted in the first round, matching the University of Miami from 2004 for the most players selected from one school in the first round.

While the draft started with offensive players being selected with the first seven picks for the first time ever, the final five picks of the opening round were all defensive players, concluding with the defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selecting linebacker Joe Tryon out of Washington with the 32nd pick.

The Chicago Bears saw a chance to solve their long-running quarterback problem and pounced, trading up to select Justin Fields with the 11th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

The Bears moved up from the 20th spot, trading with the New York Giants for the opportunity to take the former Ohio State QB. 

Last month, Chicago signed veteran  Andy Dalton to a one-year deal, and Nick Foles also is under contract for 2021, but now the Bears have their quarterback of the future. 

After failing to unseat Jake Fromm as the starter under center at the University of Georgia in his freshman year in 2018, Fields transferred to Ohio State.

An outstanding sophomore season saw Fields finish as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy having thrown for 3,273 yards, 41 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

He added 22 scores over eight games last year to finish his college career with 5,701 yards and 67 TDs through the air.

Fields, a dual-threat QB, also had 1,539 rushing yards and 19 further TDs on 260 carries, including 10 scores in 2019.

The 22-year-old was initially pegged as the second quarterback in this draft behind Trevor Lawrence, for whom the first pick had long been reserved.

But debate around Fields' ability – of perceived lack of – to process quickly, reading the field and moving on from his first progression, saw his reputation take a hit.

Fields actually had an average snap-to-release time of 2.81 seconds in 2020, though, marginally faster than second overall pick Zach Wilson (2.82), who was praised for being able to get the ball out quickly and accurately.

Indeed, Fields threw just 16 pickable passes in 556 attempts for a competitive percentage of 2.88 over the course of the past two seasons.

And the number 11 pick should give Chicago a new dimension with his outstanding downfield passing.

Of Power 5 passers with at least 200 throws who averaged 10 or more air yards per attempt last season, Fields' well-thrown percentage – which measures how often throws are an accurate, well-thrown ball – of 80.18 was second only to Sam Howell of North Carolina (81.31).

Andy Dalton opted to join the Chicago Bears after receiving assurances he will be the team's new starting quarterback.  

Dalton has signed a one-year deal reportedly worth $10million with Chicago, who had been linked with a blockbuster trade for Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson during the offseason.  

Nick Foles is already at the Bears, though Mitchell Trubisky's time with the franchise has come to an end after he joined the Buffalo Bills in free agency.  

"They told me I was the starter," Dalton said during his introductory news conference on Thursday. "That was one of the reasons why I wanted to come here.   

"Every conversation I've had has been that, so that's the assurance that I've gotten.   

"I had several options and I felt like this was the best fit for me. When you hear that you're going to be the starter, that's an enticing pitch."

Dalton spent the 2020 season with the Dallas Cowboys, initially serving as back-up to Dak Prescott.  

However, he was thrust into a starting role when Prescott suffered a season-ending leg injury against the New York Giants in Week 5.  

Dalton went on to throw for 2,169 yards with 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 11 games – his completion percentage of 64.9 just above a career number of 62.2. He did miss time, though, due to a concussion and also contracting coronavirus.  

He was selected with the 35th pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011 and, during his nine seasons there, he threw for 33,763 yards, putting him second on the team's all-time list for passers.  

Now the three-time Pro Bowler will aim to solve a problematic position for the Bears, who traded up to draft Trubisky second overall in 2017, ahead of both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.  

Chicago finished the 2020 campaign with an 8-8 record, good enough for second spot in the NFC North and a playoff berth. However, they were beaten 21-9 by the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round.  

"This was definitely the place I wanted to be," Dalton said of his new home. "I'm glad this whole thing worked out.  

"At this point in my career, you want to join a team that is competitive, that is doing things the right way, is trending in the right direction, and to get a chance to come in and start for a team like this, that's a great opportunity for me and for my future and my career and everything."

The Buffalo Bills have announced the signing of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on a one-year deal.  

Trubisky arrives in Buffalo after four years with the Chicago Bears, who selected him with the second overall pick in the 2017 draft.  

The 26-year-old was the first quarterback taken that year, the Bears trading up one spot to grab Trubisky ahead of fellow prospects Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, who went 10th and 12th respectively.  

His rookie season saw him finish with a 4-8 record after claiming the starting role from Mike Glennon, while the following year he made the Pro Bowl after Chicago won the AFC North, though they lost in the Wild Card round to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

However, Trubisky struggled to build on a campaign where he threw for a career-high 3,223 yards, with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Last season he was benched in Week 3 in favour of Nick Foles, only to reclaim the job by Week 12.

Overall, Trubisky started in nine games in 2020, completing 199 of his 297 pass attempts for 2,055 yards. He had a completion percentage of 67 per cent as he threw for 16 scores and eight interceptions. 

The move to the Bills will see him serve as back-up to starter Josh Allen, who steered the franchise to the AFC Championship Game in his third season in the league. 

The Chicago Bears have signed quarterback Andy Dalton, potentially providing him the chance to start under center in 2021.

According to multiple reports, Dalton will join the Bears on a contract worth $10million, with the chance to earn another $3m in incentives.

Chicago had reportedly made a "very aggressive pursuit" of Russell Wilson, who has been the subject of trade talk, but saw their efforts rebuffed by the Seattle Seahawks.

Dalton presents something of an uninspiring alternative. The three-time Pro Bowler was backup to Dak Prescott with the Dallas Cowboys last year but ended up starting nine games after Prescott's season-ending ankle injury.

He completed 64.9 per cent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions and enters a quarterback room featuring former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, with 2017 second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky allowed to hit the open market after failing to live up to expectations.

Trubisky and Foles alternated at starting quarterback last season, each providing unconvincing performances but doing enough between them to help the Bears sneak into the playoffs, where they suffered a dour Wild Card Round loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Beyond Wilson, the other elite quarterback whose name has been continually mentioned in relation to a trade is Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans.

And the Texans landed some insurance in case the disgruntled star gets his trade wish granted, signing journeyman Tyrod Taylor to a one-year deal.

The Miami Dolphins added a backup to Tua Tagovailoa, bringing in Jacoby Brissett on a one-year deal that sees him reunite with head coach Brian Flores, who was on the New England Patriots' staff when Brissett was there in 2016.

The Chicago Bears need a new quarterback.

One of the better all-round rosters in the NFL once again suffered frustration in 2020.

A second consecutive 8-8 season was enough to creep into the expanded playoffs, but a tame 21-9 Wild Card defeat to the New Orleans Saints soon followed.

Mitchell Trubisky started the season at QB, and later regained his place after being benched in place of trade arrival Nick Foles, who also underwhelmed.

Ultimately, despite a late flurry from Trubisky, neither QB could propel the Bears into contention in the NFC North, which was dominated by the Green Bay Packers. A meaningful postseason run never looked likely because of those limitations under center.

Head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace know their jobs likely hang in the balance based on how they fare in 2021, with their ability to find a solution at the game's most important position crucial to the Bears’ prospects of success next season.

Here we have looked at some of the best Stats Perform data from their 2020 season to determine whether taking that next step is possible.

Offense

Despite being a playoff team, only six teams had a worse yards per game total than the Bears on offense (331.4), while 23.3 points per game was better than just nine franchises.

The Bears’ rushing offense was 25th in the NFL (102.9 yards per game), while 228.4 net passing yards per game was good for the 22nd best mark and 5.62 yards per passing play had them ranked 26th.

Continuing the trend of bottom-half offensive statistics, Chicago averaged 27.4 yards in their big passing plays of 20+ yards – the worst in the NFL - and only seven teams produced fewer than their 42 in that category.

Any struggles in the passing game cannot really be put on the two quarterbacks’ supporting cast. Bears receivers only dropped 12 of 414 catchable passes this season, an impressive rate second only to the Arizona Cardinals (nine from 296) in the league.

Fifth-round draft pick Darnell Mooney looked a steal as he registered 61 catches in 631 yards in support of Allen Robinson, who passed 100 catches (102) for the first time in his NFL career.

But generally this was an offense lacking dynamism despite the past success of Nagy offenses.

Aside from their passing problems, more could have been expected from the rushing game and a once dominant offensive line.

Running back David Montgomery had the fourth-most rushing attempts in the NFL (247) but just the 14th-most rushes of 10+ yards (24) and the 46th highest yards per carry (4.33) average.

Montgomery had a steady but unspectacular 1.8 yards after first contact, 34th in the league among rushers who had at least 50 attempts.

He also had 11 broken tackles, breaking a tackle on 4.4 per cent of plays (the 15th highest percentage in the league), though he did add 54 catches through the air. 

As a team, the 40 rushes of 10+ yards was only 25th in the league, so not much was working on this side of the ball.

Defense

The Bears still had a strong defense, though the unit fell short of the peak play it has produced in years gone by.

They ranked 11th in yardage (344.9), 14th in points allowed (23.1) and 12th in scoring efficiency, allowing 68 scoring drives out of 179.

Opponents tallied 5.41 yards per play (11th), while 18 takeaways put them in a tie for 15th, so they were in the top half of the league in all key metrics.

A sack total of 35, though, was 17th in the NFL.

Khalil Mack posted below 10 sacks (9.0) and 15 QB hits (13) for a second straight year, having not done so in either category in four years between 2015 and 2018.

But that is a reflection of the Bears front seven looking like it needs an infusion of youth, rather than an alarming drop off from Mack. Robert Quinn (2.0 sacks, 6 QB hits) had a quiet year rushing the passer opposite Mack.

The secondary, led by Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson, allowed 10 big play TDs (tied for 14th) and 59 total big plays (16th).

Offseason

Trubisky is out of contract and a return has not been ruled out, while Foles has two years left. But if either of those players are starting at QB then it is hard to see the Bears challenging.

Potential trade options Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz have already found new teams. With the Bears picking in the bottom half of the draft and the cupboard relatively bare in terms of remaining free agent options, Pace is going to have to pull something special out of the bag at QB.

Beyond that critical position, number one wide receiver Robinson is set to hit free agency and is among the NFL's most interesting names to watch after racking up 200 catches and 2,397 receiving yards over the past two years.

The Bears have the franchise tag at their disposal, so could get extra time to work out a long-term deal or consider a tag-and-trade if Robinson expresses a desire to depart.

Chicago enter the offseason approximately $2million over the estimated cap ($185m), putting them around the middle of the league.

They will likely have some room for manoeuvre without being able to embark on a significant free agency splurge.

Having not picked in the first round since 2018, several areas of the roster are in need of attention in addition to the drama at QB. Despite the stellar play of Mack, trading for him has not produced the desired results.

With those issues to overcome at a time when Aaron Rodgers' play is putting divisional rivals Green Bay up there with the NFC's best, the Bears find themselves in an undesirable position.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has reportedly not demanded a trade, according to his agent Mark Rodgers.

It was claimed by The Athletic that Wilson's relationship with the Seahawks coaching staff had reached breaking point.

Rodgers told ESPN's Adam Schefter on Thursday that the 32-year-old wants to play for the Seahawks, but if a trade were to be given consideration then only four teams would be in the running.

Wilson's agent named the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Las Vegas Raiders and Chicago Bears as the only viable destinations for Wilson.

At the end of last season the quarterback voiced his frustration over the number of hits he had received and spoke of wanting a greater say in team affairs.

Wilson signed a four-year, $140million extension in April 2019 which includes a no-trade clause which needs to be waive for a deal to take place.

The Seahawks finished as division champions but were stunned by Los Angeles Rams in the NFL play-offs.

It will be an offseason of change for the Chicago Bears after Defensive Coordinator Chuck Pagano announced his retirement from coaching, while quarterback moves are expected.

Pagano served as Bears DC for the final two seasons of a 36-year coaching career.

He was Indianapolis Colts Head Coach for six seasons between 2012 and 2017, making the playoffs for the first three of those years.

Pagano, 60, spent 18 years coaching in college and the next 18 in various NFL roles.

"After 36 years of coaching the game I love, I have decided to retire from the National Football League," Pagano said in a statement on Wednesday.

"I'd like to sincerely thank the McCaskey family, Ted Phillips, Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy for the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing organization.

"Also, many thanks to the Irsay family and the Colts organization. 

"I am forever grateful to that community and to the support they have always given me both on and off the field.

"I'd also like to thank all the coaches, players and staff throughout my career. Thank you will never be enough to express my gratitude.

"As much as I love coaching, it takes a lot of time away from your family and loved ones.

"I'm excited to start this new chapter of my life and can't wait to be able to spend more time with my family. This has been an amazing ride and I have made countless relationships that I will cherish forever."

Pagano's announcement came after general manager Pace revealed everything was on the table at the QB position.

The Bears made the playoffs despite stumbling to an 8-8 record in 2020, though they were promptly eliminated by the New Orleans Saints on Wildcard Weekend.

Former number two overall pick Mitchell Trubisky is hoping to return but is scheduled to become a free agent after the team previously declined his fifth-year option.

While that draft selection does not appear to have panned out, a trade for Super Bowl champion Nick Foles failed to have the desired effect either.

"We definitely need more out of the [QB] position," Pace said. "We know that. What does that entail? That's what this whole offseason is about.

"Everything is on the table right now. You do learn and improve through experiences.

"I can confidently say I'm a lot better at this with each year of experience." 

Trubisky was 20th in the NFL among qualifying quarterbacks with a passer rating of 93.5 in 2020, while Foles (80.8) was 29th in the same category.

Matt Nagy was named Coach of the Year in 2018 but consecutive 8-8 seasons have he and Pace under pressure to make the most of a strong all-round roster, something which could be possible with better options under center.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said it was "inevitable" that he would meet Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar Tom Brady in the NFL playoffs.

It will be a clash of the titans when Brees and the Saints host Brady's Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Round on January 17.

The second-seeded Saints earned a showdown with the Buccaneers after easing past the Chicago Bears 21-9 in Sunday's Wild Card clash in New Orleans.

Six-time Super Bowl champion Brady – who swapped the New England Patriots for the Buccaneers at the start of the season – and Brees are the top two passers in terms of yards and touchdowns in NFL history.

It will be the first playoff game since at least 1950 between the top two players in career passing TDs, while it will be the second postseason encounter since 1950 between the top two players in career passing yards.

"The minute that he signed with the Bucs and came to the division, you felt like that was going to be a team to contend with, that was going to be a team that would have playoff aspirations and beyond, just like us," Brees told reporters after being asked about the upcoming blockbuster.

"So, I guess it was inevitable."

Brees fuelled the Saints with two touchdowns against the Bears, finishing 28-of-39 passing for 265 yards, no interceptions and no sacks.

The veteran – who is reportedly set to retire at the end of the season – also became the sixth player in NFL history with 35-plus passing touchdowns in the playoffs, per NFL Research. Brees joins Brady (75), Joe Montana (45), Brett Favre (44), Peyton Manning (40) and Aaron Rodgers (40).

The Saints allowed nine points and 239 total yards at home to Chicago – each the fewest allowed by New Orleans in a playoff game in team history, per NFL Research.

"Our defense played outstanding," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "We tackled well in space ... Ultimately we forced them to become one-dimensional, and when you do that you're going to win a lot of games."

The New Orleans Saints cruised through to the Divisional Round after Drew Brees inspired a 21-9 victory over the Chicago Bears in the Wild Card round.

Brees fuelled the second-seeded Saints with two touchdowns as the Saints made light work of Mitch Trubisky and the Bears in New Orleans on Sunday.

Saints star Brees was 28-of-39 passing for 265 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks, while Bears counterpart Trubisky finished 19 of 29 for 199 yards, one TD and no interceptions.

The Saints stormed out of the blocks against the seventh-seeded Bears in the NFC clash – an 11-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Michael Thomas on the second possession setting the tone.

It was Thomas' first touchdown reception of the season amid a 2020 campaign ravaged by injuries, with an ankle problem sidelining the receiver for the past three weeks.

A 36-yard field goal from Cairo Santos reduced the deficit for the Bears, who trailed 7-3 at half-time at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome where Chicago were making just their second playoff appearance in the past 10 seasons.

Brees weaved his magic again as he connected with Latavius Murray on a six-yard pass to move the Saints 14-3 clear with just over four minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Alvin Kamara's short rushing TD less than nine minutes from the end put the result beyond doubt, while the Bears finally entered the endzone when Trubisky threw a 19-yard pass to Jimmy Graham at the death.

 

Turning point - Saints defense

It was a dominant display from New Orleans' defensive unit at home to the Bears.

While sack leader Trey Hendrickson missed the game due to injury, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins stepped up and wreaked havoc – recording one sack, while C.J. Gardner-Johnson tallied eight total tackles.

Chicago's cause was not helped by Anthony Miller's ejection in the third quarter after the wideout shoved Gardner-Johnson.

Brees flexes muscles

The veteran quarterback became the sixth player in NFL history with 35-plus passing touchdowns in the playoffs, per NFL Research. Brees joins Tom Brady (75), Joe Montana (45), Brett Favre (44), Peyton Manning (40) and Aaron Rodgers (40).

What's next?

Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers await the Saints in a blockbuster Divisional Round showdown. It will be the first playoff game since at least 1950 between the top two players in career passing touchdowns.

After a second Wild Card loss in three years, questions again will be asked of quarterback Trubisky – who is no guarantee to return to Chicago – and the Bears heading into the offseason.

Despite getting under way in the middle of a pandemic, the NFL was able to complete its full regular season schedule. 

The drama is set to step up a gear as the postseason arrives this weekend, with only the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers securing a first-round bye. 

Cleveland head coach Kevin Stefanski will be absent when the Browns make their first playoff appearance since 2002 having tested positive for COVID-19. The Pittsburgh Steelers are their opponents. 

The Los Angeles Rams have concerns over the fitness of Jared Goff – one of the many injury worries affecting those teams still left standing – ahead of their encounter with the Seattle Seahawks, while the Buffalo Bills will be aiming for a first postseason win since 1995 when they go up against the Indianapolis Colts.

SATURDAY'S GAMES

Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills – Saturday, 1.05pm (all times Eastern)

- The Colts claimed the third AFC Wild Card spot with an 11-5 record, the most wins for the franchise since 2014. Indianapolis have held opponents under 100 rush yards in each of their past five games – including playoffs, they have not done so in six straight since a seven-game run from October 27 to December 7, 1968. 

- The Bills claimed their first division title since 1995 and won 13 games this season, their best record since 1991. However, Buffalo are still seeking their first playoff win since the 1995 Wild Card round – their 24-season drought is the third-longest active streak in the NFL, behind the Cincinnati Bengals (30 seasons, including 2020) and Detroit Lions (29 seasons, including 2020).

Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks – Saturday, 4.40pm

- Making his NFL debut against the Arizona Cardinals last week, backup quarterback John Wolford finished with 231 passing yards and 56 rushing yards, both game-highs. The 56 rushing yards were the most by a Rams QB since Roman Gabriel had 57 in Week 6, 1967.

- In the first eight games of the season, Russell Wilson averaged 317.6 passing yards and threw 28 touchdown passes, but in the last eight games, those numbers were just 208.9 and 12. However, Seattle went 6-2 in both sections of the season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team – Saturday, 8.15pm

- After starting the year 2-7, Washington finished on a 5-2 run to clinch their first division title since 2015. Washington's last playoff win came in the 2005 Wild Card Round against Tampa Bay - they are 0-4 since then. This season, they reached 30 points just once. 

- The Bucs have attempted 22 pass plays of at least 40 air yards this season, three more than any other team in the league, and its eight completions also lead the league. Washington have attempted just two such passes, tied with the New Orleans Saints for the fewest, and is one of two teams (also Cincinnati) without a completion.

SUNDAY'S GAMES

Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans – Sunday, 1.05pm

- The Titans have won three of the past four meetings with the Ravens, including a 30-24 overtime victory in Week 11 this season and a 28-12 win in last season's Divisional playoff. This will mark the fifth postseason meeting between the teams – they have split the previous four 2-2 with the visiting team winning each game.

- Tennessee won the AFC South for the first time since 2008, when they fell to the Ravens 13-10 in the Divisional playoff. The Titans scored at least 40 points five times this season, including in Week 17 against the Houston Texans, the most in the NFL this season and one shy of the all-time record (last set by the 2018 Saints).

Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints – Sunday, 4.40pm

- In his past six games, David Montgomery has averaged 99.7 rushing yards per game, and has seven rushing touchdowns. In his first nine games, he averaged just 52.4 yards per game and had one touchdown. His highest yardage total in that span came against New Orleans in Week 8 (89 yards).

- The Saints have lost each of their past two playoff games in overtime (against the Minnesota Vikings last season, and the Rams in 2018). No team has ever played three straight overtime playoff games – the Saints beat the Bears in overtime in Chicago in Week 8 this season.

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers – Sunday, 8.15pm

- The Browns and Steelers will meet in consecutive weeks after Cleveland pulled out a 24-22 victory at home in Week 17. This will be the teams' third meeting in the postseason and the third straight postseason game the Browns will face the Steelers – Pittsburgh won both of the previous two, most recently a 36-33 win in the 2002 Wild Card game.

- Ben Roethlisberger is expected to make his 22nd career postseason start, which would break a tie with John Elway for fifth most all-time. His 30 postseason passing touchdowns are tied for ninth most in NFL history, while his 24 career playoff interceptions are tied with Dan Marino for sixth most all-time.

The Green Bay Packers secured the NFC's top seed on Sunday, while Derrick Henry led the Tennessee Titans to the AFC South title.

Aaron Rodgers again powered the Packers, throwing four touchdown passes in a win over the Chicago Bears.

Despite their loss, the Bears clinched a playoff spot, as did the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams.

Meanwhile, Henry made history as the Titans won the AFC South, while the Washington Football Team claimed the NFC East.

 

RODGERS DOMINATES AGAIN AS PACKERS CLINCH TOP SEED

Rodgers completed 19 of 24 passes for 240 yards and four TDs in the Packers' 35-16 victory over the Bears.

The Packers quarterback connected for TDs with Robert Tonyan, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Dominique Dafney and Davante Adams.

Rodgers finished the regular season with 48 TD passes. Alongside Peyton Manning, they are the only players in NFL history with 45-plus TD passes in multiple seasons, according to NFL Research. They won the NFL MVP in each of the previous three instances.

While Green Bay finished with a 13-3 record, the 8-8 Bears also reached the playoffs.

 

HISTORY FOR HENRY AS TITANS WIN AFC SOUTH

The Titans claimed the AFC South for the first time since 2008 after a thrilling 41-38 win over the Houston Texans.

Henry became the eighth player in history to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a single season.

He had 250 rushing yards and two TDs against the Texans. Of the eight players to achieve the feat, Henry was the only one who needed 200-plus yards in his last game to get there, according to Stats Perform.

A.J. Brown had 151 receiving yards, but the Titans needed Sam Sloman's 37-yard field goal as time expired to edge the Texans.

The Titans became the first team in NFL history to have a 250-yard rusher and 150-yard receiver in the same game.

 

WASHINGTON WIN NFC EAST AS COLTS, RAMS REACH PLAYOFFS

The Washington Football Team claimed the NFC East thanks to a 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Alex Smith threw two touchdown passes and two interceptions as Washington (7-9) claimed the division.

The Colts (11-5) reached the playoffs thanks to a 28-14 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Los Angeles Rams (10-6) are also into the postseason after beating the Arizona Cardinals 18-7.

 

Week 17 scores:

Minnesota Vikings 37-35 Detroit Lions
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 44-27 Atlanta Falcons
New England Patriots 28-14 New York Jets
Buffalo Bills 56-26 Miami Dolphins
Cleveland Browns 24-22 Pittsburgh Steelers
New York Giants 23-19 Dallas Cowboys
Baltimore Ravens 38-3 Cincinnati Bengals
Indianapolis Colts 28-14 Jacksonville Jaguars
Tennessee Titans 41-38 Houston Texans
Los Angeles Rams 18-7 Arizona Cardinals
New Orleans Saints 33-7 Carolina Panthers
Green Bay Packers 35-16 Chicago Bears
Los Angeles Chargers 38-21 Kansas City Chiefs
Seattle Seahawks 26-23 San Francisco 49ers
Las Vegas Raiders 32-31 Denver Broncos
Washington Football Team 20-14 Philadelphia Eagles

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