New York Giants
Had it not been for some very intentional and obvious tanking by the Philadelphia Eagles in their final regular season game against the Washington Football team, the Giants might have won the NFC East and made the playoffs. Considering the slew of acquisitions made this offseason, especially those on the offensive side of the ball, the G-Men look poised to make the postseason this year not because they played in and won a historically bad division but because they're a good football team with a wining record. Getting Daniel Jones weapons seemed to the the theme of New York's offseason and get him weapons they did: Kenny Golladay, John Ross, Kyle Rudolph, and Devontae Booker were all added to an offense that finished 31st in yards per game and points per game last season. The Giants also used their first round selection on Florida wide out Kadarius Toney who figures to be the team's starting slot receiver and can be used creatively in the offense in a number of ways. Oh, and Saquon Barkley will be back from injury. This will be the first offseason Jones will be in the same offense as the previous season and that familiarity, alongside the additions of Golladay, Ross, Rudolph, Booker, and Toney, point to a breakout year. All things considered this is a big year for Daniel Jones to emerge as a premier franchise quarterback similar to Josh Allen's rise a season ago. While most of the offseason was focused on the offense and New York lost a key defensive piece in Dalvin Tomlinson the defense still improved with the additions of cornerback Adoree' Jackson and linebackers Reggie Ragland and Ifeadi Odenigbo. New York should also have a healthy Xavier Mckinney, who was Pro Football Focus' highest rated rookie safety, for the full season. Big Blue's defense was surprisingly solid last season, finishing in the top half of the league in practically every meaningful defensive stat - yards per game, points per game, sacks, takeaways, and more - and should be just as good if not better in 2021. To be fair most of the NFC East got better this offseason as well - The Cowboys will have a healthy Dak and more more consistent offensive line play, the Football Team brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick and Curtis Samuel, and the Eagles now have one good receiver in Devonta Smith - but if Daniels Jones can take a big step and make the most of his new weapons and the defense plays similar to how they did in 2020 then New York will be competing for either the division title or a wild card spot in late December and early January.
After starting the season 1-5 the Vikings were able to turn things around and won six of their last 10 games to finish 7-9, two spots out of playoff contention. Two of those first five losses - week three against the Titans and week five against the Seahawks - were by one point and had Minnesota won either their season could have turned out a lot different. A win against Tennessee would have put them one spot outside of the playoffs and a win against Seattle would have sent them to the postseason as the seventh seed. Against the Titans the Vikings had the ball late in the fourth quarter but Kirk Cousins threw an interception in Titans territory, effectively ending the game, and against the Seahawks the defense allowed a go ahead touchdown with 15 seconds left in regulation after Minnesota's offense had turned the ball over on downs with just under two minutes left in the game. Minnesota's offense was good in 2020 - averaging the fourth most yards per game in the league and they earned Pro Football Focus' highest receiving grade - but not great largely thanks to issues on the offensive line. After giving up just 28 sacks in 2019 the Vikings o-line gave up 39 in 2020 and PFF ranked the unit 29th in pass blocking and 18th in run blocking. Minnesota made addressing this glaring need to improve a priority in the draft, selecting Christian Darrisaw - a great pass protector - in the first round and Wyatt Davis in the second. Both should be day one starters. Despite being one of the league's most pressured quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins finished with the eight best passer rating and the ninth best completion percentage and he'll still have Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson to throw the ball to in 2021 so there is reason to think that he have a Pro Bowl caliber season with Darrisaw and Davis providing better protection up front. This better offensive line will also benefit Dalvin Cook and if he plays even close to as well as he did in 2020 then Minnesota could have a top 10 offense. Joining the offensive line in improving is the defense, as the Vikings should have their stars back and healthy in 2020 along with some new faces acquired in free agency. Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and Danielle Hunter played a combined 13 games in 2020 - Kendricks played in 11, Barr played in two, and Hunter missed the entire season with a neck injury - and defensive tackle Michael Pierce opted out of last season, leaving head coach Mike Zimmer with the worst defense he's ever had according to him. All should be good to go in 2021 and with the addition of Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson in free agency this may be one of the better defenses Zimmer has had. Minnesota certainly has a roster talented enough to make the postseason but they face a tough schedule and opponents with the fifth highest combined 2020 win percentage that could negate hopes to bounce back from a disappointing season.
San Francisco 49ers
At various points throughout the 2020 season it seemed like half of the 49ers roster was injured. Virtually all of the teams stars on both offense and defense - Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas, and Richard Sherman - spent significant time on the injured reserve list and at one point in the season all the players on IR represented nearly $80 million dollars in contracts. The injury bug took a big bite out of the Niners, resulting in a lost season that saw the team finish last in the NFC West with a 6-10 record. With all of the injuries and a full season being played in the middle of a pandemic it's easy to forget that this is a team which went 13-3, won their division, and were a quarter away from winning the Super Bowl a little over a year ago. With a healthy roster San Francisco is a title contender, even more so considering the additions they made in the offseason, so it would be shocking if they miss the playoffs in 2021. In addition to bringing back various role players in addition to Trent Williams - Pro Football Focus' second highest graded offensive lineman in 2020 - and Jason Verrett the Niners inked deals with free agents Alex Mack, Samson Ebukam, and Maurice Hurst who all will likely be in starting roles. With Bosa, Ebukam, Ford, Hurst, Arik Armstead, Fred Warner, and Dre Greenlaw San Francisco should have one of the best defensive fronts in the league and Mack fills a hole at center that was a revolving door last season. The receiving core and secondary are still rather weak but the 49ers got to Super Bowl 54 running the ball and generating pressure up front, two things they should be successful at again in 2021. We now come to the matter of quarterback. San Francisco traded up to the third overall pick to select Trey Lance but unlike the two signal callers selected before him I don't think he sees meaningful playing time this season unless Garoppolo gets injured. The Niners can win now with Garoppolo and it's unlikely Kyle Shannahan will mess with a proven winning formula - San Francisco is 24-9 with Jimmy G as the starter and 5-23 without him. A healthy Jimmy Garoppolo can lead, or rather, game manage, this team to the postseason again.