The 2021 NFL season was full of amazing moments, stellar games, and all-time records. Every week something crazy happened, and there are so many moments from this year that we will talk about for a long time to come. This piece will look at some of the biggest surprises of the NFL season. When we say “surprise” we mean it in a positive connotation. So when we were all so “shocked” that the Packers lost in the playoffs again, that would be technically filed under the disappointments area. Anyways, let’s get into it and talk about some of the moments, games, records, and players that defined this legendary season.
The Hero of Cincinnati, and the Stellar Season of the Bengals
How could I write about surprises from this season article without including those boys in Cincinnati. They will be playing in a Super Bowl after finishing as a bottom 5 team each of the last 2 seasons. Joe Burrow put up an MVP caliber campaign and gained quite a following of people around the country, especially when he took on the Chiefs and had the chance to shut up a certain quarterback’s obnoxious little brother. No one expected the Bengals would make it this far, and they defied all odds. Joe Burrow flourished in his first season back from a devastating knee injury.
Ja’Marr Chase had one of the greatest rookie campaigns of all time and some legendary games down the stretch to propel the red hot Bengals to the top of the AFC North. Joe Mixon finally made the brave fantasy managers who still took him very proud and had his best season yet. The defense led by Trey Hendrickson and Jessie Bates got better every week and has been outstanding and clutch at every stage of the NFL Playoffs. The Bengals are this season’s biggest surprise, but they are definitely not the only surprise from a wild season.
Cooper Kupp’s Season for the Ages With His New QB
Matthew Stafford was the quarterback of the Detroit Lions when Calvin Johnson had arguably the greatest wide receiver season ever. He clearly has a knack for getting the best out of a team’s top receiver. Looking at Cooper Kupp and Calvin Johnson side by side though, you’ll see two very different looking players. So when Kupp set the league on fire with nearly 2000 yards and 16 touchdowns, it caused many jaws to drop. There is no word to describe Kupp’s season that would give it enough respect.
He has been even better in the postseason and helped propel the Rams all the way to the Super Bowl. We have to give Matthew Stafford his due respect as well, of course, he was under center throwing balls for two of the greatest wide receiver seasons ever. The connection is there, and people will always judge Cooper Kupp because of him lining up in the slot a lot. Perhaps they should judge their favorite teams for not paying attention to Kupp and allowing him to lap every receiver in the league in terms of volume and efficiency all season. Cooper Kupp haters don’t deserve the attention, let’s just applaud a legendary season from a great duo in Stafford and Kupp.
T.J. Watt’s Record-Setting Sack Barrage Propels the Mediocre Steelers to the Playoffs
The Steelers were not a good team this year. They were the latest undeserving team to make the playoffs in the expanded playoff format in the NFL. Don’t get me wrong, the seventh seed in the NFC was 3 points away from the Super Bowl, but this proves how hit and miss this new playoff format can be. T.J. Watt could care less how I feel about the playoff format though. He didn’t even get the chance to take advantage of the extra regular-season game. He straight up went out there for 15 games and set the new single-season record for sacks. In 15 games.
His 22.5 sacks were enough to pass Michael Strahan and get that putrid Steelers offense a date with the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs. I know the MVP award is pretty much a quarterback award at this point, but no one in the league was more valuable than Watt in 2021. This isn’t super surprising, considering Watt has been a consistent pass-rushing threat since he entered the NFL, but breaking the single-season sack record was above and beyond what we expected. His season was outstanding, and he made sure the Steelers got their money’s worth when they gave him a contract extension, pretty much singlehandedly rewarding them with a playoff spot.
Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs Make The Dallas Defense Scarier Than Their High Powered Offense
Micah Parsons was, in terms of talent, a top 3 prospect in last year’s NFL Draft. Character concerns placed him gently in the Cowboys’ lap at the 12th pick. The Cowboys, who already love players with off-the-field issues, were obviously thrilled to take the talented Parsons. It ended up being a godsend for the franchise. Parsons rewarded the Cowboys with 64 tackles and 13 sacks as a rookie. He also got help from cornerback Trevon Diggs to make this unit among the scariest in the league.
Trevon Diggs was the definition of “boom or bust” this season. He gave up the most yards out of any primary cornerback in the league, but also put up some unreal stats. Diggs had 11 interceptions this season, 2 of which were pick-sixes. His play was inconsistent, but he provided so many sparks for this Dallas team and was a huge reason for the playoff berth. These two nearly got Dan Quinn a head coaching job after his first year as the Cowboys defensive coordinator, and they made the Dallas defense the stars of AT&T Stadium, rather than the high-powered offense led by Dak Prescott, Zeke Elliott, Ceedee Lamb, and Amari Cooper.
The Kirk Cousins Show Makes the Vikings Offense Among the League’s Most Dynamic
Kirk Cousins is the poster child for a player that is vastly overhated because of a small proportion of his gameplay and his personality. The man is efficient though, and he played some great football. Sure, he folds in primetime constantly and has the personality of a sweet 90-year-old grandmother that gets him bullied by many fans and analysts throughout the league, but he is better than people give him credit for. He, Dalvin Cook, and Justin Jefferson led an exciting and dynamic Vikings offense that surprised a lot of people.
The Vikings didn’t make the playoffs though, because their defense was among the league’s worst and Mike Zimmer is an awful head coach, but that offense could’ve been scary in the playoffs. Cousins has been a name discussed in trades as the Vikings look to get out of their trend of being mediocre every season; Whoever gets him is getting a very solid player, regardless of what people constantly say about him. I predicted Cousins would play above people’s expectations at the beginning of the year, and he did just that. He will make whoever he plays for next year a formidable team and he had a very under-the-radar season under center for the Vikings.
Jameis Winston Proves the Critics Wrong in New Orleans before an injury ends his bounce back campaign
The Saints were confident with Jameis Winston at the start of the season. New Orleans trusted Winston to be the heir to the quarterback position that had been run with unmatched success by Drew Brees since 2006; He was doing it very well. The Saints were 5-2 with convincing wins against the Packers, Buccaneers, and Patriots when Jameis Winston started. He totaled 14 touchdowns to only 3 interceptions and a 102.8 QB Rating this season. Not bad at all for a guy that has been plagued by inconsistency and turnover issues for his whole career.
He tore his ACL and the Saints were never the same. They started three different guys in his place for the rest of the season and finished 4-6 without Winston. They narrowly missed the playoffs and would have surely been in with Winston under center. While the Saints and Jameis don’t currently have a contract, there is a chance they bring him back to take over under center again. Winston was on a roll, and his injury hurt fans around the league. Regardless of how it ended, Winston and the Saints surprised a lot of people when playing with a healthy roster this season.
These have been the biggest surprises of the NFL season.