NFL 2021 season: 10 results we didn’t see coming

Ahead of the 2021 NFL season, I don’t think any of us here at F10Y – not even the two die-hard Cincy fans among us – would have predicted the journey that the Bengals went on as they progressed to the Super Bowl. Their sudden transformation from four-win strugglers to AFC champions was one of the most unexpected story lines from the campaign just gone.

Some of their wins – a sweep of divisional rivals the Ravens in the regular season, as well as playoff wins over the #1 seed Titans and #2 seed Chiefs – were unexpected to say the least but they weren’t the only scores that had us scratching our heads in disbelief this season. So here, I take a look back across the last 22 weeks at the other shock results that none of us saw coming. 

Week 1

New Orleans Saints 38, Green Bay Packers 3

In Week 1, there’s always a curveball or two but I don’t think anyone predicted the Saints blowing the Packers away. Aaron Rodgers looked a long way from retaining his 2020 MVP crown as he completed 15 of 28 attempts for just 133 yards, and finished up with a pitiful quarterback rating of 36.8. He failed to convert a single third down and threw two INTs before HC Matt LeFleur hooked him in favour of Jordan Love in the fourth quarter. But it wasn’t all on Rodgers: AJ Dillon led the team with just 19 rushing yards and Aaron Jones got a paltry 9 yards from his five attempts, while Davante Adams (56 yards) was the only receiver with half-decent numbers.

Sam Greenwood – Getty Images

Saints HC Sean Payton called a great game and even though their new QB Jameis Winston completed just 14 of 20 attempts, five of them went for TDs, including a 55-yard howitzer to Deonte Harris. Juwan Johnson (2), Chris Hogan and Alvin Kamara were the other beneficiaries.

In short, there was nothing in this game to suggest that the Saints wouldn’t make the playoffs, that Green Bay would stroll to 13-4 and take the NFC North by five clear games, or that Rodgers would be crowned MVP for the fourth time in his career, but that’s exactly what happened. First weeks, eh?

Week 4

New York Jets 27, Tennessee Titans 24 (OT)

After opening their campaign with three losses, including a 26-0 shutout against the Broncos in Week 3, the Jets then faced the Titans. Looking back, we now know that Tennessee – who stuttered to 2-2 – went on to be the AFC’s #1 seed and enjoy a bye during the Wild Card Round, but you might have got decent odds on that outcome at the time, after this unimpressive overtime defeat to Gang Green.

Jets fans would have had their hopes raised by a 297-yard, 2 TD, 1 sack game by Zach Wilson. That tally included two completions over 50 yards, including a 53-yard TD by former Titan Corey Davis (111 receiving yards) and another scoring pass to Jamison Crowder.

On the other side of the ball, Ryan Tannehill got sacked seven times but in his defence, his O-line was without the injured Ben Jones and Taylor Lewan. With Julio Jones and AJ Brown also missing from their attack, Tennessee inevitably struggled in the red zone, and it was left to Derrick Henry to carry the load, with 33 carries for 157 yards and a TD. But he alone couldn’t stop a Jets side from sealing their first victory of the 2021 season. It was an impressive scalp but alas, they would only go on to get three more…

Week 7

Cincinnati Bengals 41, Baltimore Ravens 17

It had been a solid start for the Bengals but this was their first stern test after a relatively easy schedule thus far. The margin of victory was the real shocker though, and it came thanks to an explosive fourth-quarter display featuring rushing TDs from Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. And all this just a week after the Ravens had held the Chargers to just six points.

The Burrow/Chase connection was starting to hum at this point as Burrow threw for 416 yards and 3 TDs while Chase went for 201 receiving yards (a franchise rookie record). His latest long TD – when he spun on the spot to confuse three Baltimore defenders before racing for an 82-yard score – was arguably the highlight, while CJ Uzomah enjoyed a two-touchdown outing on National Tight Ends Day.

In contrast, the Baltimore offence struggled to gain traction and many people’s tip for the AFC North title slipped to second place behind their victors, albeit both at 5-2. Having thrown just the one TD pass to Marquise Brown, Lamar Jackson (five sacks) gave way to Tyler Huntley.

With this win, Cincinnati surpassed the four wins they achieved in 2020 but little did we know that the run would continue all the way to SoFi Stadium in mid-February. 

Week 8

New York Jets 34, Cincinnati Bengals 31

A week after dispatching the Ravens so handsomely, the resurgent Bengals were looking to push on against the 1-5 New York Jets. Cincy would have been licking their chops at the prospect of facing stand-in QB Mike White, making his first career start after three years on the sideline.   

Sarah Stier – Getty Images

After seven games without any first quarter points, White led his team to a TD on his opening drive and by the end of the day, the debutant finished with 37 of 45 for 405 yards and three touchdowns. In so doing, he became only the second QB since at least 1950 with at least 400 passing yards in his first NFL start.

On a day when his counterpart Joe Mixon was thoroughly bottled up (14 rushes for 33 yards), New York RB Michael Carter ran for a game-high 77 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. The rookie was also targeted 14 times as a receiver and caught nine balls for another 95 yards. Cincinnati were left reeling.

The Jets defence kept Cincy scoreless in the first half, despite having a 1st-and-goal on the Jets 1-yard line after an interception by Jessie Bates. In a high-scoring game in which the Jets notched almost 200 more total yards than their opponents and racked up 14 more first downs, this goal line stand was vital in securing the Jets’ second win of the campaign, and one that left Bengals fans wondering if their early-season optimism had been misplaced.

Week 9

Jacksonville Jaguars 9, Buffalo Bills 6 

When this one kicked off in early November, the Jaguars only had one win on the board while the Bills were sitting nicely in the AFC race as one of four teams with just two losses. Yet by the time the clock had hit zero, the Jags had posted their second win in three games and high-flying Buffalo had failed to score a touchdown against the league’s worst defence. Had we entered a parallel universe?

In an unexpected win, the Jaguars only converted two of 13 third downs and mustered 218 yards of total offence, with Carlos Hyde rushing for 67 yards and Dan Arnold the only Jaguar with more than 27 receiving yards. But HC Urban Meyer and his defence came to the rescue. The other Josh Allen – the Jacksonville linebacker – had a career day, dominating the headlines with a team-high eight tackles, two tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery as the Jax D pressured the Josh Allen on almost 40% of his dropbacks. Their three takeaways pipped the two they’d managed in the previous eight weeks.

The Bills had an inexplicably bad day at the office, with just two first-half FGs from Tyler Bass to show for their efforts, yet they went on to win the AFC East. Go figure.

Week 11

Tennessee Titans 13, Houston Texans 22

With Derrick Henry out from Week 8 with an injury, the 8-2 Titans were completely shut out for the first two quarters by everybody else’s whipping boys, Houston. The Texans, who ‘improved’ to 2-8, also dished out the first four-interception game of Ryan Tannehill’s career, one of which was taken by Kamu Grugier-Hill from one red zone to the other for 82 yards. Tannehill had 52 passing attempts and racked up over 300 yards, but only managed the one TD.

The Titans defence did tough it out for four consecutive three-and-outs late in the game but without King Henry, their attack had no bite; only Nick Westbrook (107) topped 50 receiving yards. The special teams unit didn’t help matters, with punt returner Chester Rogers letting a kick bounce off his leg. Houston recovered the ball at the Tennessee 5-yard line and converted the possession into seven points and a 19-0 lead.

Houston’s offence wasn’t exactly impressive, with leading rusher Rex Burkhead only managing 40 yards while their top wideout was Chris Conley with 37 yards. Luckily, Tyrod Taylor’s two touchdown runs gave his feeble passing stats (14 of 24 for 107 yards) a bit of polish. Come the end of the season, Houston only managed two more wins while Tennessee ended up at 12-5, so this win against the eventual AFC South winners was certainly a bolt out of the blue.  

Week 15

Detroit Lions 30, Arizona Cardinals 12

At this stage of the season, we should have known better than to assume the Cardinals, setting the pace across the league at 10-3, would comfortably see off the 1-11-1 Lions. On paper, it looked very one-sided with Detroit’s 28th-ranked defence up against the fourth-best scoring offence. And yet the script was ripped by and thrown in the bin by the spirited Lions, who became only the third team since 1970 to have the NFL’s worst record and beat the side with the best (minimum eight games).

Lon Horwedel – AP

It was an all-round performance by Detroit, who suddenly enjoyed a second win in three. The ground game was solid, with Craig Reynolds (who?) rushing for 112 yards from 26 carries. Jared Goff (21 of 26, 216 yards, 3 TDs) went 2 for 2 for 59 yards and two touchdowns on deep passes to Amon-Ra St Brown and Josh Reynolds. And the defence also stood tall, with Charles Harris registering 1.5 sacks and Amani Orawariye making a diving INT.

In contrast, the Cardinals blew a chance to clinch a playoff spot, and this second successive loss suddenly made the No.1 seed look like a distant dream. With a big fat zero on the scoreboard at half time, their offence was out of sorts, the O-line couldn’t block or create holes, receivers dropped passes and the red zone was a dead zone (going 0-4). Kyler Murray only threw one TD pass to Christian Kirk, and ran four times for a total of three yards.

But the Lions/Cards clash wasn’t the only anomaly in Week 15…

New Orleans Saints 9, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 0

Nine points doesn’t normally guarantee you a win, especially against the reigning Super Bowl champions, but somehow the Saints shut out Tom Brady for just the third time in his career (and first since 2006) and emerged victorious against the Bucs, without even scoring a TD.

Nathan Ray Seebeck – USA TODAY Sports

Sitting at 10-3, the Buccaneers were all set to clinch the NFC South while the 6-7 the Saints were fighting to keep their faint playoff hopes alive. And yet New Orleans sacked TB12 four times and forced him into an interception and a fumble as the league’s top-ranked scoring offence was kept out of the end zone. The fact that DC Dennis Allen was filling in for the COVID-compromised Sean Payton probably had something to do with it (Allen has since replaced Payton after he stepped away from the game).

The Saints’ offence was nothing to write home about, with QB Taysom Hill going 13 of 27 for just 154 yards, 112 of which went in Marquez Calloway’s direction. Tre’Quan Smith was the team’s next best receiver with just 17 yards while Hill himself was the only rusher to exceed 18 yards. On the other side of the ball, Cameron Jordan in particular was a big factor. As well as forcing the Brady fumble, he posted five tackles, three QB hits, two tackles for loss and two sacks, making him only the second Saints player ever to reach 100 career sacks. It all helped to seal the W and bump them up to the No.7 seed spot in the NFC.

In their defence, the Bucs did endure a slew of injuries, with Leonard Fournette (34 rushing yards), Chris Godwin (49 receiving yards) and Mike Evans (14 receiving yards) all leaving the field early. But having scored at least 30 points in four straight contests, a big fat goose egg was not on the cards. Even Ryan Succop missed his only field goal attempt on a strangely off-colour night for the Buccaneers.  

Week 17

Cincinnati Bengals 34, Kansas City Chiefs 31

Hindsight is 100% so having seen the Bengals beat the Chiefs a second time in the AFC Championship game a few weeks later and punch their Super Bowl ticket, this result doesn’t seem quite so odd now. But at the time, not even us Bengals fans predicted this one, especially with KC holding a 14-point lead at three different times during the game.

Having sorted out their wobbly defence and rattled off eight straight wins, the Chiefs were purring in the first half but after the break, they let a 28-14 lead slip through their fingers. Their defence gave up 475 yards of total offence, and got called for penalties that cost them first downs and vital yards at key moments.

If you didn’t think the Burrow-to-Chase connection was a thing before this game, you certainly did afterwards. The former LSU duo teamed up for 11 completions for 266 yards and three touchdowns. Even when not catching TD passes, Chase made other important gains, including a 30-yard play on a 3rd-and-27. Chase set a rookie record for most receiving yards in a game (266) and in a season (1,429) while Burrow went 30 of 39 for a ridiculous 446 yards and 4 TDs.

HC Zac Taylor twice opted to go for it inside the final minute with the game poised at 31-31 and was rewarded with those KC penalties. An Evan McPherson FG not only sealed the win but also brought the AFC North title to the Queen City.

Sky Sports

Week 18

Jacksonville Jaguars 26, Indianapolis Colts 11

The storylines ahead of this game focused on the Jaguars ‘pursuit’ (for want of a better word) of the No.1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and the Colts’ expected progression into the playoffs. As it turned out, the Packers – having already secured the NFC’s top seed – rested their stars after halftime and lost 37-30 to the Detroit Lions. That meant that this unexpected victory didn’t prevent the Jaguars from claiming the top draft pick for a second successive year. However, it did scupper Indy’s hopes of postseason action.  

At the time, the Colts had the NFL’s best turnover differential but somehow lost the turnover battle 2-0 to the league’s worst team in that category. And it could have been worse had they not recovered two other fumbles. Meanwhile, Trevor Lawrence had a solid final outing, with his first game with 2 TDs without an interception, and the Jaguars’ D put Carson Wentz on the deck half-a-dozen times, despite being ranked 30th in sacks.

With Jonathan Taylor becoming the league’s top running back, albeit in Derrick Henry’s absence, many assumed that the Colts would ease into the playoffs with little trouble. As it was, this final big upset of the regular season left them watching the postseason action on TV, just like the rest of us.

Feature image credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack – AP

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