NFL News & Analysis

NFL Week 1: Key matchups and storylines for all 16 games

The start of the 2021 NFL preseason was inevitably met with excitement, especially after a 2020 season absent of August football. And that excitement was inevitably met with disappointment as we watched Dwayne Haskins and Ben DiNucci combine for 4.8 yards per pass attempt in the Hall of Fame game. 

Today, we have the real thing. Two teams — that will be playing all of their starters — will compete to start the season 1-0.

The season opener, featuring the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, figures to be one of the more compelling games of the week, even if the Buccaneers enter it as an eight-point favorite

From Justin Herbert looking to build on his impressive rookie season to Brian Burns lining up across from Mekhi Becton, here are the matchups and storylines to look out for in the opening week of the 2021 NFL season

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Dallas Cowboys @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-8.5)

Matchup to watch: Buccaneers pass rush vs. Cowboys offensive line

Losing All-Pro right guard Zack Martin to the COVID-19 list isn’t an ideal way to enter a matchup with Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. Martin’s expected replacement, Connor McGovern, ranked 26th out of 38 qualifying right guards in PFF pass-blocking grade last season. 

Despite that loss, Dallas is still likely better suited to hold off a Tampa Bay pass rush that recorded pressure on 37.1% of their snaps in 2020 than they were last season. That’s due to the expected return of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins. Their replacements combined for a 53.4 overall grade at tackle last season, last among all offenses.  

Biggest storyline: How does Dak Prescott look in his return from injury?

The Cowboys have fielded one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL with Prescott at the helm since 2019. Dallas averaged a league-high 6.4 yards per play in 2019, and they were on a similar pace to start the 2020 season, averaging 6.5 yards per play in Prescott’s five starts (2nd highest). Then, the Cowboys QB suffered a gruesome ankle injury and Dallas' season fell apart. Dallas averaged just 4.7 yards per play in their final 11 games, the lowest in the league. Their season rests on Prescott returning to form from both his ankle injury and the shoulder injury that limited him this offseason.

The current over/under for this game is 51.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans (+3)

Matchup to watch: EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson vs. LT Laremy Tunsil

As a rookie last season, Chaisson lined up over or outside the left tackle on 66% of his snaps. With he and Josh Allen projected to start on the edge in Joe Cullen’s new-look defense, we should get to see Chaisson pitted against Tunsil — the owner of a 94th-percentile PFF pass-blocking grade since 2019 — in this one. Chaisson notched zero pressures on 12 pass-rushing snaps against Tunsil in 2020, but he came on strong late in his rookie season, with 19 of his 29 pressures coming in the Jaguars’ final five games. 

Biggest storyline: Trevor Lawrence gets one of the league’s softest matchups in his NFL debut

Houston’s defense offered little resistance to opposing passing offenses in 2020. They allowed a league-high 118.5 passer rating on throws into their coverage and recorded pressure on just 27% of opposing dropbacks (26th). There’s little reason to expect the latter to improve after the team parted ways with by far their best pass rusher, J.J. Watt, this offseason. That should make this a relatively comfortable debut for Trevor Lawrence, who completed 25-of-32 clean-pocket attempts for a passer rating of 120.8 this preseason.

The current over/under for this game is 45.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Los Angeles Chargers @ Washington Football Team (+1)

Matchup to watch: Chargers rebuilt offensive line vs. Washington defensive line

For years, the offensive line has been a negative for Los Angeles. The hope is that changes in 2021 with Bryan Bulaga returning as the lone holdover from the starting group in 2020. Corey Linsley (PFF’s highest-graded center last season) and first-round pick Rashawn Slater (who earned a 90.0 grade in his final season at Northwestern) anchor the new-look unit. They’ll be put to the test early against one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. 

Washington was home to PFF’s fourth-highest graded defensive line in 2020, and they could be even better this season with a returning Matt Ioannidis and room for improvement from young players like Chase Young and Montez Sweat

Biggest storyline: Justin Herbert’s command of the offense in his second season

There are two narratives you can choose to latch on to for Herbert entering his second season. The first is that his success in unstable situations, such as his play under pressure, sets him up for regression. Herbert recorded a league-high 99.4 passer rating under pressure as a rookie, which was remarkably higher than his rating from a clean pocket (97.7). 

On the other hand, Herbert is due for the second-year jump most quarterbacks see following a full offseason as the projected starter, as PFF’s Timo Riske illustrated in the chart above. This matchup against a strong Washington defense should provide a decent picture of where Herbert stands.

The current over/under for this game is 44.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Seattle Seahawks @ Indianapolis Colts (+2.5)

Matchup to watch: Colts rushing attack vs. Seahawks run defense

The Seahawks defense was much maligned in 2020, but their overall efficiency numbers trended toward the middle of the pack. A big part of that was their run defense. Seattle allowed just 3.5 yards per run play last season, third in the NFL behind only the Buccaneers and Rams. 

That sets up a strength-on-strength matchup here against Indianapolis, who wants to run the ball. The Colts ranked among the top-10 offenses in the NFL in run rate (44%) and yards per run play (4.4) in 2020, and they return one of the better running back groups in the NFL with Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack

Biggest storyline: Jamal Adams looks to bounce back from an injury-ridden first season in Seattle

The narrative that Adams is a liability in coverage has spun out of control following a 2020 season where he ranked 79th among safeties in PFF coverage grade. Adams ranked fourth in the same metric across his final two seasons with the Jets. Injuries early in the year and the transition to a new defense contributed to the disappointing debut with Seattle. 

Now, with a freshly-inked contract extension, Adams will look to get back to the level of play he showcased in New York that coaxed two first-round picks from the Seahawks last offseason.

The current over/under for this game is 50. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) at the line in the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

New York Jets @ Carolina Panthers (-4)

Matchup to watch: Edge Brian Burns vs. LT Mekhi Becton

These are two of the more exciting young players in the NFL at their respective positions, and we should get several head-to-head matchups. Burns played both sides of the line of scrimmage last season, with 300 or more snaps on the right and left side. He has been a popular dark horse Defensive Player of the Year candidate this offseason following a 2020 campaign with a pass-rushing grade that trailed only Khalil Mack, T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett and Joey Bosa at the edge rusher position. Becton ranked among the top half of qualifying left tackles in PFF grade (74.4) as a rookie and should only continue to improve in New York.

Biggest storyline: Zach Wilson faces his predecessor, Sam Darnold, in his first career start

There are few positive takeaways from Darnold’s tenure in New York, save perhaps the draft picks that the Jets were able to salvage from Carolina for his services this offseason. Among 32 qualifying quarterbacks, Darnold ranks last in the league in PFF grade, yards per attempt, completion percentage and passer rating since 2018.

Darnold’s fresh start in Carolina coincides with the Jets’ rebuild with No. 2 overall pick at quarterback and Robert Saleh at head coach. There is plenty of optimism surrounding this new-look Jets offense, and Wilson in particular. He finished the preseason with an 83.9 passing grade (fifth highest).

The current over/under for this game is 44. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Minnesota Vikings @ Cincinnati Bengals (+3)

Matchup to watch: Bengals interior offensive line vs. Vikings interior defensive line

Minnesota struggled to defend the run last season, but their run defense received sizable reinforcements in opt-out-return Michael Pierce and free-agent acquisition Dalvin Tomlinson this offseason. Both players rank in the 84th percentile or better among interior defenders in run-defense grade since 2017. Sheldon Richardson also returns to Minnesota to add an additional pass-rushing presence on the interior.

Those big bodies will look to attack the weak point of Cincinnati’s offense from guard to guard. Quinton Spain, Trey Hopkins and Xavier Su’a-Filo combined for a 60.4 PFF grade in 2020, and the Bengals are hoping for stable play from the veterans as Joe Burrow works his way back from injury.   

Biggest storyline: Can Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase shake off preseason rust?

Burrow and Chase were supposed to produce fireworks this season, reunited after a historic run in 2019 at LSU. Instead, they’ve produced the wrong variety of headlines heading into the year between concerns about Burrow’s level of comfort in the pocket early in training camp and Chase’s hands. Drops aren’t the most stable statistic, but four drops on five preseason targets are enough to raise some red flags. 

The hope is that those concerns are left in the preseason. Burrow and Chase connected on 24 passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield at LSU in 2019, 15 more than Burrow completed overall as a rookie last year in Cincinnati. The Bengals need more of that downfield element in their passing offense this season if they want to compete in a tough AFC North.

The current over/under for this game is 47.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Arizona Cardinals @ Tennessee Titans (-3)

Matchup to watch: Julio Jones and A.J. Brown vs. Arizona cornerbacks

Arizona’s cornerback depth was shaky before Malcolm Butler retired, and it certainly is now. Byron Murphy Jr. (ideally a slot cornerback), Robert Alford (has missed the last two seasons with injury), Marco Wilson (fourth-round rookie) and Luq Barcoo (2020 undrafted free agent) currently sit atop the depth chart for a team that ran man coverage at a top-five rate in 2020. 

Highest man coverage rate in NFL last season
Defense Man coverage rate
Miami Dolphins 54%
Detroit Lions 46%
Arizona Cardinals 46%
Baltimore Ravens 45%
Philadelphia Eagles 44%

That’s far from ideal, particularly with Brown and Jones on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Both finished among the top-10 wide receivers in the NFL in yards per route run last season.

Biggest storyline: Is Tennessee’s offense still elite without Arthur Smith calling plays?

The Titans’ offense has been one of the most efficient offenses in the league since 2019. They’ve averaged 6.0 yards per play over the past two seasons, second to only the Chiefs. But the man orchestrating that offense, Arthur Smith, is now the head coach of the Falcons, leaving tight ends coach Todd Downing the task of keeping the train on the tracks. That coaching change, along with several personnel changes, introduces some uncertainty as to whether this offense will still be as good as it has been over the past few years.

The current over/under for this game is 52.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


San Francisco 49ers @ Detroit Lions (+7.5)

Matchup to watch: Fred Warner vs. T.J. Hockenson

On paper, Detroit’s receiving corps is one of the weakest groups in the NFL, opening the door for Hockenson to lead the team in receiving. PFF’s fantasy projections currently have Hockenson down for 76 catches in 2021, most on the team and fifth-most at the tight end position. Hockenson should see plenty of the recently extended Warner in this matchup, PFF’s highest-graded linebacker against tight ends since 2019. Warner’s 12 forced incompletions over the past two seasons rank third among off-ball linebackers. 

Biggest storyline: What is the split at quarterback for San Francisco?

The biggest story in this game will be how Kyle Shanahan deploys Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance against Detroit. The decision to keep Garoppolo around and not free up nearly $25 million in salary-cap space points to the idea that he will start the year at quarterback, even if the starter hasn’t yet been “officially” announced. Still, the 49ers previewed a split-quarterback system in their preseason finale with Garoppolo and Lance. The No. 3 overall pick gives Shanahan more options, both in the designed run game and in the passing game with his arm talent. It will be interesting to see how that gets put to use against Detroit if it does at all.

The current over/under for this game is 45. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) look on prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at Bills Stadium. Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills (-6.5)

Matchup to watch: Steelers rebuilt offensive line vs. Bills reloaded defensive line

Zach Banner’s placement on IR to start the season moves Chukwuma Okorafor back to right tackle — where he ranked 34th out of 38 qualifiers in 2020 — and inserts fourth-round rookie Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle. The only piece on the Steelers’ offensive line that enters the 2021 season with a reasonable expectation for above-average play is left guard Kevin Dotson, who allowed just one pressure on 206 pass-blocking snaps as a rookie in 2020. 

That group will face off against a Buffalo defensive line that is deeper than it was a season ago, thanks to rookie reinforcements Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham. Rousseau led all rookie edge defenders with at least 25 pass-rushing snaps in pressure rate (26.9%) this preseason.  

Biggest storyline: Can Matt Canada bring Pittsburgh’s offense back to life?

The Steelers recorded 12 wins and an AFC North title in 2020 despite their offense. Their 5.0 yard per play average ranked 27th in the league, ahead of only the Giants, Bengals, Eagles, Football Team and Jets. The hope is that Matt Canada’s new scheme and a running game that isn’t a complete zero changes this offense for the better. Some of the changes Canada will implement — such as a 61% shift/motion rate (second) and reduced 54% shotgun rate (21st) — were present this preseason. The question now becomes how that translates into the regular season.

The current over/under for this game is 48.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons (-3)

Matchup to watch: WR Calvin Ridley vs. CB Darius Slay

PFF’s new wide receiver-cornerback matchup chart projects Ridley to see Slay in coverage on 27 snaps in Week 1 in a matchup that isn’t ideal for fantasy production. However, the preseason hinted that we won’t see as much man coverage from the Eagles this year. Philadelphia led the NFL in Cover 2 usage (39%) and two-high coverage shells during the preseason. Slay is a cornerback who has shadowed opposing team’s top receivers in the past, and he wants to do so again in 2021. It’s worth monitoring how often he sees Ridley, who PFF projects to lead the league in receiving yards this season. 

Biggest storyline: What does this Atlanta offense look like after their offseason moves?

The Falcon’s offense has undergone a lot of change since the last time that we saw it. The Matt RyanJulio Jones connection that led all duos in completions and receiving yards since 2011 is no more, but the Falcons added another athletic freak early in the 2021 NFL Draft to replace the one now residing in Tennessee. Kyle Pitts has a chance to quickly enter the upper tier of NFL tight ends after dominating from inline, slot and wide alignments at Florida. 

New head coach Arthur Smith’s fingerprints appeared on the offense this preseason, with Atlanta leading all teams in 12 personnel rate (41%) and play-action rate (35%), both staples of his offenses in Tennessee.

The current over/under for this game is 48.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs (-6)

Matchup to watch: Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney vs. new starting tackle tandem for Chiefs

The Chiefs took their struggles up front in Super Bowl 55 to heart, and they have five new starters across the offensive line to show for it. The first-year tackle tandem of Orlando Brown Jr. and Lucas Niang get a tough test early with Garrett and Clowney, both of whom rank among the top-20 edge defenders in total pressures since 2017 despite missed time. 

With three first-year starters on the right side, Brown is supposed to be one of the safe bets on the left side next to Joe Thuney, but he isn’t a slam dunk to translate at left tackle on a pass-heavy offense like Kansas City’s. His 5.5% pressure rate allowed at left tackle last season ranked 20th at the position. 

Biggest storyline: Baker Mayfield needs to carry over momentum from the second half of the 2020 season and get on the same page as Odell Beckham Jr.

From Week 7 through the postseason, Mayfield ranked fourth in PFF grade at the quarterback position. His 14% uncatchable pass rate was the second-lowest mark in the league. It was the best stretch of his three-year career, and coincidentally, it came without OBJ on the field. Those two have yet to show any sort of chemistry since Cleveland traded for Beckham. Their 72.4 passer rating ranks last out of duos with at least 100 targets since 2019. It’s a ridiculous notion to suggest Beckham makes the offense worse, but the two do need to get on the same page to elevate this offense in 2021.

The current over/under for this game is 54.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Green Bay Packers @ New Orleans Saints (+4)

Matchup to watch: LT Elgton Jenkins vs. ED Marcus Davenport

It’s a luxury to have an offensive lineman like Jenkins, who the Packers have confidence in kicking out from left guard to left tackle and providing quality play while All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari is on the PUP list to start the season. Still, Jenkins hasn’t regularly played left tackle since his 2016 season at Mississippi State. He’s recorded just 29 NFL snaps at the position across his first two years in the league. 

Elgton Jenkins NFL snaps by position
Position LT LG C RG RT
Snaps 29 1,911 297 1 33

And this matchup against Davenport isn’t one to overlook. Davenport is a breakout candidate in his fourth season out of UTSA if he can stay healthy. He ranks in the 70th percentile of qualifying edge defenders in pass-rush grade and the 87th percentile in run-defense grade on a per-snap basis since 2018. 

Biggest storyline: Will Jameis Winston be less reckless with the football in Sean Payton’s offense?

The last time we saw Winston start a 16-game season, he threw a combined 44 interceptions and dropped interceptions, 12 more than the next closest quarterback. That moth-to-flame propensity for risk has followed Winston throughout his career, and it stands in contrast to how well Drew Brees took care of the football for almost the entirety of his time spent in New Orleans. From 2006 through 2019, Brees went 34 dropbacks on average per turnover-worthy play, which was good for the seventh-best mark in the league over that stretch. 

Can Winston still attack defenses downfield while cutting down on the mistakes? The Saints will be hoping that answer is finally yes after years of it being a definitive no.

The current over/under for this game is 50. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (10) scores a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons after making a catch during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Broncos @ New York Giants (+3)

Matchup to watch: Giants receiving corps vs. Broncos secondary

Both teams invested significant resources into improving these respective position groups. The Giants added Kenny Golladay and Kyle Rudolph in free agency while spending their first-round pick on Kadarius Toney. All have dealt with injuries but are trending toward playing in the opener. On the other side, Denver added Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, Patrick Surtain II, and several young safeties to a defense that ranked 15th in EPA per play allowed last season despite battling injuries. 

The edge likely goes to Denver in this matchup, particularly if a defensive front that welcomes back Von Miller can generate consistent pressure against a shaky Giants offensive line. 

Biggest storyline: How far can either quarterback take their respective offense?

On paper, both of these rosters look relatively strong. New York’s offensive line stands out as a clear weakness, but beyond that, there aren’t many holes to be poked at for either team. However, the quarterback position has a good chance of limiting both teams. 

Teddy Bridgewater won the starting job in Denver after ranking 26th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks in PFF grade last season in Carolina. Daniel Jones fared slightly better in the grade department (18th), but he has plenty left to prove after a season in which he averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt. Points could be at a premium in this game.   

The current over/under for this game is 41.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Miami Dolphins @ New England Patriots (-3)

Matchup to watch: Patriots secondary minus Stephon Gilmore vs. Dolphins receiving corps

Luckily for the Patriots, Will Fuller V is serving the final game in his six-game suspension carrying over from last season. But Miami still has plenty of speed to put on the field at wide receiver with Jaylen Waddle and Jakeem Grant drawing snaps alongside DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki. That could create problems for the Patriots without Gilmore, who begins the season on the PUP list. 

J.C. Jackson steps into the No. 1 role, but the other outside options don't inspire much confidence. Jalen Mills, who converted to safety last season in Philadelphia, is opposite Jackson on the current depth chart. We could see more zone coverage from Bill Belichick’s defense with Gilmore sidelined.

Biggest storyline: Former teammates Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones square off

Jones’ near-perfect preseason performance that wrestled the starting job away from Cam Newton sets the scene for this matchup — former teammates looking to extend their college success into the NFL. 

Accuracy was a clear strength for both Tagovailoa and Jones while at Alabama. They were two of only seven Power Five quarterbacks to deliver an accurate ball on at least 64% of their passes on 500-plus attempts from 2018 to 2020. These two defenses will put that accuracy to the test in this matchup.

The current over/under for this game is 43.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Chicago Bears @ Los Angeles Rams (-7.5)

Matchup to watch: Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack have been the two most dominant defensive linemen in the NFL since 2014

Donald and Mack have dominated the NFL since they were selected eight picks apart in the 2014 NFL Draft. They rank first or second in PFF grade, PFF’s wins above replacement metric and total pressures among all defensive linemen over the past seven seasons. The two won’t face off directly against one another, but it’s a rare opportunity to see two of the best at what they do on the same football field and appreciate greatness. 

Biggest storyline: Can the Rams be more explosive on offense with Matthew Stafford at quarterback?

The Rams clearly had a driving force — creating more explosive plays — behind several of their moves this offseason. 

Stafford vs. Goff on passes 20+ yards downfield | 2020 season
Player Deep attempt rate Deep passer rating
Matthew Stafford 13% (8th) 123.8 (4th)
Jared Goff 8% (30th) 71.5 (27th)

Stafford opens up the offense for Sean McVay, and the Rams provided him some more speed at wide receiver with the additions of Desean Jackson and Tutu Atwell. All of that points to an offense that is going to take more shots in 2021. But will those downfield opportunities be available against a Bears’ defense that has allowed just 37 completions 20 or more yards downfield since 2019 (t-3rd fewest in NFL)?

The current over/under for this game is 46.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.


Baltimore Ravens @ Las Vegas Raiders (+4.5)

Matchup to watch: Henry Ruggs vs. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters

While the likes of Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Brandon Aiyuk and Chase Claypool looked like burgeoning NFL stars, Ruggs’ career got off to a relatively mundane start in Las Vegas. He caught only 26 passes as Las Vegas opted to use him exclusively as a deep threat. Ruggs’ 17.3-yard average depth of target ranked second among wide receivers with at least 40 targets in 2020. 

It will be interesting to see whether that usage changes in 2021. The Raiders need more out of Ruggs, but this is about as tough a matchup to start the season as he’ll see against Humphrey and Peters — both of whom are top-10 outside cornerbacks entering the season. 

Biggest storyline: Baltimore’s passing offense needs to get back on track

The Ravens still fielded an elite rushing offense in 2020. That will likely be the case as long as Lamar Jackson is in his athletic prime and starting at quarterback for Baltimore. But the passing offense did take a noticeable step back last year from 2019. They dropped from third to 19th in average yards per dropback. There is blame for that decline to spread around between Jackson, Greg Roman, an offensive line that allowed more pressure in 2020 and an uninspiring receiving corps. 

Baltimore attempted to improve the latter two this offseason, but they won’t have the services of first-round pick Rashod Bateman in this contest as he works his way back from a groin injury. 

The current over/under for this game is 50.5. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.

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