Ranking the Top 4 NFL Playoff Sleeper Teams for 2021

By Dan Vasta in NFL
| July 5, 2021 7:18 am PDT

The NFL has been known for never staying the same unless your team has Tom Brady as their quarterback. Winning with consistency is rarely easy and that is why there are so many new teams coming and going in the playoff picture.

There is a riveting stat that must be stated every offseason. Since 1990, there have been four new teams every season to make the playoffs the following season. Yes, that means there are four playoff teams from the prior season that do not return to the playoffs.

Offseason additions and subtractions are tough to put into perspective at times, but it is never easy to project schedule difficulty and injuries. Those are two driving forces into who makes the playoffs and where they get seeded.

Still, it is amazing to see new teams reach the postseason when they received zero love in any of the preseason magazines or online publications.

With that, here are four NFL playoff sleepers to bet on in 2021.

4. Miami Dolphins (+137)

The Dolphins were so close to reaching the postseason last season thanks to Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. The magic he brought to the franchise was fun to watch and the thrilling comeback they pulled off over the Raiders in the final month of the season a true spectacle.

More times than not, a team does not have a prayer to win that game and yet Miami somehow found a way to win. Many will argue the Raiders gave that game away like they often have, but credit needs to be given to the way the Dolphins played down the stretch.

They may not have Fitzmagic anymore, but Miami has a nice price, and they slide into 4th place in my 2021 NFL playoff sleeper rankings.

The Dolphins were a problem for most of the teams they faced, not named Buffalo. The Bills are the biggest issue to the Dolphins because it will be so difficult to make the playoffs if they do not win the AFC East.

The division is certainly winnable, but the wild card berth chances for the Dolphins will be a tall task.

The AFC looks like it has six clear-cut teams ready for a postseason berth. The Chiefs, Ravens, Browns, Bills, Titans, and Colts all have favorable odds to reach the postseason.

A few of those teams are near locks to reach the postseason due to star power and favorable schedules. If you’re looking for a safer bet, check out this year’s 2021 NFL playoff locks.

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With those squads potentially locking up playoff spots, that would leave one final spot to grab the third and final wild-card berth for an appearance in the postseason.

New England and Pittsburgh will certainly have chances to get back to the dance, but they have more questions going into their season than Miami does. The Chargers would be the only other team that I lean more on.

Those six teams I had just mentioned are not mortal locks to reach the dance since they do have to play the season out. We have seen stranger things happen and this Miami squad can make a push.

The biggest reason for such optimism on the Dolphins are the pieces the franchise has been surrounding Tua Tagovailoa with.

The offseason additions of Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle will give the offense one of the more electric weapons in the entire league. Fuller and Waddle, when both healthy, are exceptional athletes.

Fuller has had nagging and recurring hamstring issues and Waddle is coming off a bad ankle injury that sidelined him for much of his final season at Alabama.

The underrated key for making a postseason push will be the running back position. Myles Gaskin was able to stay healthy in college at Washington, and he will look to do the same in the NFL.

He is entering his third season and has only toted it 178 times thus far in his career. Malcolm Brown will be the backup and a rookie out of Cincinnati, Gerrid Doaks, will provide additional help if needed. If Gaskin cannot be at least solid, the squad will put a lot on the plate for Tua.

Will he turn the corner and become a relevant passer? DeVante Parker along with Fuller and Waddle should be enough help for solid success.

The defense was one of the more opportunistic squads in the entire league and most should credit star corner, Xavien Howard. Drafting Jevon Holland out of Oregon could be a pivotal addition since he was such a ballhawk in college.

If youngsters such as Christian Wilkins and Raekwon Davis can improve their production, the team is fully capable of making that next step.

Look for them to win fewer games by good fortune and more of them by their athletic ability. The win total should be right near the double-digit mark, which will put them in the fold for their first berth in the postseason since 2016.

3. Arizona Cardinals (+190)

Ranking the best 2021 NFL playoff sleepers gets easy when you start considering sheer talent and upside. Arizona has both in spades going into 2021.

This team brings a ton of upside and that dangerous word known as potential is often used. Kliff Kingsbury could be on the hot seat if his squad puts together another disastrous ending to a season.

Arizona will be a hot and cold type of squad like they were last season. They showed us last season just how difficult they were to predict. They were inconsistent and that was in large part due to a lack of a run game and a struggling offensive line.

The good news is that Kyler Murray isn’t comfortable with the results so far.

“I want to win. Not going to the playoffs is weird for me.”

With Murray’s guidance and a stacked roster around him, Arizona absolutely is among the 2021 NFL playoff sleeper teams to keep an eye on.

The recent addition of Rodney Hudson should be a huge bonus. He has been one of the better interior linemen over the years in the NFL. The former Florida State product could make up the difference that was struggling so much last season.

Kenyon Drake is gone, and most people are rejoicing. Unless of course, you dislike James Conner even more. Chase Edmonds will likely be splitting time with Conner and the two can both catch the ball out of the backfield well.

Conner did not have a successful end of tenure with the Steelers as he had wanted, but Kyler Murray can make everybody better that is around him.

Murray has a bevy of weapons in a passing game that should be potent. Larry Fitzgerald has been around for decades now, and he still can man the slot well. Christian Kirk is a deep threat that has had monster performances (see Sunday Night Football vs Seattle and Monday Night Football vs Dallas).

The team even added A.J. Green, who Murray has spoken highly of.

DeAndre Hopkins is regarded as a top-five wipeout by everybody and can take over games on every given Sunday. The ‘Hail Murray’ catch he hauled in over the Bills was something that only happens in video games. He has shown for years that not many if any can do what he does.

Arizona fans and fantasy owners would like to see more touchdowns for Hopkins, but Murray will steal some with his legs. The upside for one of the best QB-WR duos in 2021 is fantastic. It is video game-like since both can go to the house on any play Kingsbury draws up.

Budda Baker and Byron Murphy should work in unison as former teammates in college. Both are tremendously talented and should allow players such as Chandler Jones and Isaiah Simmons to feast in the opponents’ backfield.

Those four studs on defense alone should provide enough production to keep them in the majority of their ball games.

Whatever happens in terms of the good and bad, none of it matters if the Cardinals can find a way to sneak out 10-plus victories.

Unfortunately, Kliff Kingsbury and Arizona did not win enough last season. They were nearly mathematically a lock to make the postseason and could not get the job done in the final month of the regular season.

I certainly have my doubts about this team because they play in the toughest division in football arguably, but I am not overly in love with Seattle or San Francisco, either.

The Seahawks are a team that will get more love and credit due to the success they have had under Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson. San Francisco has a loaded roster, but a quarterback quandary is never a great feeling as a franchise.

Arizona has questions of its own but will have as good of a chance in the past half-decade to make a push for the postseason.

2. Los Angeles Chargers (+137)

The Chargers will be major threats to get back to the postseason thanks to stability at the most important position. Quarterback Justin Herbert put on an absolute clinic in his rookie season, where he set records in the process.

He also took home the 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

While his first season was one for the ages, he’s just getting started. Many believe he could shine even brighter in his second season as a pro.

The dynamic passer in the NFL has a bevy of weapons that have the Bolt nation thrilled on their potential for the future, which looks so positive. Herbert is such a big-time athlete that he is gifted enough to break tackles from defenders as well as run by players in the front seven that may go all out to limit his big-play ability.

The Chargers were looking for somebody to replace the Philip Rivers left a few years ago when he was productive, and Herbert should be that star.

It always helps when there is a stud that can take the pressure off a young signal-caller. Keenan Allen is just that as he has been wide open for seemingly the past decade. He is entering his prime at the young age of 29 and his route running is something to study.

Allen continues to show his grit and craft that allows him to be so successful. It is a blessing for a player to lack elite speed and yet get open more often than those with gifted afterburners.

Allen has hauled in 97-plus catches in four consecutive seasons with nearly 5,000 yards in the process. Averaging 1,200 yards a season is tough and yet Allen has been the consistent pro that so many others fail to live up to.

There is a standard he sets, and Herbert built such a rapport with him last year that the future really could be special.

Those second, third, and fourth options could be what is holding up the Chargers from winning their division or at least challenging the Kansas City Chiefs.

I won’t sit here and chirp it up by stating that the Chargers will win the AFC West. However, they have the goods to be a strong number two team from that division.

The AFC West is down, and Los Angeles should be primed for a move in the pecking order. Las Vegas has had issues getting out of their own way and Denver may need to find a new quarterback yet again.

Mike Williams is a massive target that should finally crack the 50-reception threshold to improve the Charger offense. Williams has had a litany of injuries since his days at Clemson (amazing to see him recover from the neck injury he sustained in college), but the upside is still there for the taking.

Williams and running back Austin Ekeler could become valuable pieces for the Los Angeles offense.

The biggest factor that could impact the Chargers playoff hopes would be the health of Derwin James.

James has not stayed healthy since his sophomore season at Florida State, but he still flashes potential that most can only dream of. James is an absolute truck when he puts a hit on the opposition. He has the speed to track down any player that steps on the field and he could allow the secondary to be a strength and not a weakness.

Look further at this roster and you should realize they are much more talented than most prognosticators give them credit for. Blowing a half of a dozen leads on an average season was rough to endure under Anthony Lynn.

Brandon Staley has taken over and he could be just what the doctor ordered in terms of getting over the hump and back into the NFL postseason.

1. Carolina Panthers (+275)

The best NFL betting sites have the Panthers at -350 to miss the postseason. That means everybody believes the chances of Carolina making the postseason are fairly slim.

Tampa Bay of course is coming off a championship and they did not even win their division last season. New Orleans took the division crown and they as usual ended their season with another postseason disappointment.

Atlanta is still a borderline disaster as they have begun a rebuilding process after they dealt Julio Jones away to the Tennessee Titans. Poor Matt Ryan has been stuck with awful coaching and a suspect offensive line play these last few seasons, but somebody will benefit from the division.

Insert the Carolina Panthers, my friends.

The schedule is about as friendly as it gets, and they should be thankful to have a favorable early part of the slate. There are bad teams and then there are the teams that the Panthers will have the opportunity to handle.

Opening with the New York Jets is a major benefit, but the Texans, Eagles, and Falcons are all on the schedule well before Thanksgiving.

There is a solid shot for the Panthers to win all of those mentioned games and we could see a 6-2 start to the season. Sam Darnold will seek revenge and play well against his former team in the season opener.

In fact, the only team I have any confidence in terms of making the postseason this year out of the first 10 games on the Carolina schedule
is Dallas.

That is how favorable the schedule is for second-year coaches Matt Rhule and Joe Brady (offensive coordinator).

The downside would be to play all the juggernauts per se in the final few weeks of the season. The final four games are against Buffalo, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay yet again to close out the 2021 campaign.

If the Panthers have to win two or more of those games, a trip to the postseason would likely be placed on hold for the near future.

If the Panthers can start out at 6-2 like I previously mentioned, then there is an even better chance for the squad to be right around 10-3 or 9-4 going into the final stretch.

That would require at most, one win, to reach the postseason with three wild card berths now. If Carolina does start their season at 10-3, then a potential division crown with Tampa Bay would be one of the better storylines in all of football.

Any optimism you feel toward Carolina is fueled by the presence of Christian McCaffrey. Perhaps the game’s best offensive weapon, C-Mac kept the Panthers competitive even in the mist of losing over the past two years, and if he’s healthy, they have a chance to make some noise.

Heck, if he’s 100%, he may just be one of the more compelling 2021 NFL MVP sleepers to track.

I would not take it to the bank that Carolina is a mortal lock to win their division or reach the postseason, but the value is screaming at you.

At +275, this is one of the more underrated teams in the entire league that should be an explosive offense if Sam Darnold can avoid seeing ghosts on the gridiron.

Betting on the 2021 NFL Playoffs

Anytime you bet on the NFL playoffs, there is a good amount of projection involved. Some of it is gut feel, but you also need to pay attention to injuries, player movement, and team schedule.

As mentioned, injuries and schedule really play the biggest role, and then what division you play in can also be a key factor.

Going into 2021, these four teams look like viable NFL playoff sleepers due to price, surrounding environment, overall talent, and/or schedule.

The Panthers stand out the most thanks to their gaudy +275 odds, but teams like Miami and Arizona could be better values just because they’re “closer” to making a move.

Every single season, good teams take steps back, and a rising team finally takes their shot. At least one of these NFL playoff sleepers has a real chance in 2021, and bettors may want to take advantage of the revolving doors.

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