NFL 2022 Preview: Who takes it home in a changing league?

I’ve had a busy first few weeks here in Ithaca. However, this annual article is one I could not miss. Once again, football is back, and I am excited to share my preview for the season.

The NFL seems to be at a sort of crossroads. We may be nearing the end of the story for longtime legends like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Meanwhile, the story for a new generation of players including Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert is just beginning. It’s left the NFL in an interesting position; there are so many competitive teams that the standard for contention has raised. Two years ago Tom Brady won his 7th ring, and last year veteran QB Matthew Stafford finally took one home. Will this year be another win for an aging team, or will the youth of the league begin to take over? Read my predictions below and find out what I think, starting with my division by division standings.

AFC East

  1. Buffalo Bills (15-2, #1 seed in AFC)
  2. Miami Dolphins (9-8)
  3. New England Patriots (8-9)
  4. New York Jets (8-9)

For many years, the Patriots ruled in this division. Now it’s the Bills and then everyone else. Led by young standout QB Josh Allen, the Bills are as stacked on paper as any team in this league. The defense has its inconsistencies, but still has a lot of talent including what’s arguably the best safety duo in the league (Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde). Offensively, Allen has a plethora of weapons including elite WR Stefon Diggs, emerging WR Gabriel Davis, and TE Dawson Knox. 15 wins is a tough feat for any time, but it’s not out of the question here.

I have the Dolphins edging out second as their defense should win them some games. However, I don’t see them making the playoffs with QB Tua Tagovailoa under center. WR Tyreek Hill can make big plays for days but he’s not going to bail Tua out of every situation. If anyone has the chance to sneak into a wild card slot, it would be the Pats. I have them at 8-9, but this team has a high ceiling and a low floor. It all depends on whether QB Mac Jones can build on his rookie success and if Bill Belichick can coach up the young talent on the defense despite losing several big names like CB J.C. Jackson.

The Jets will remain in the basement here, but they’re definitely trending in the right direction. A year from now, this offense could be a scary sight assuming QB Zach Wilson improves and RB Breece Hall is as advertised.

AFC North

  1. Baltimore Ravens (12-5, #4 seed in AFC)
  2. Cincinnati Bengals (11-6, #6 seed in AFC)
  3. Cleveland Browns (7-10)
  4. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-13)

If there’s any team I’m counting on to go from worst to first, it’s the Ravens. With QB Lamar Jackson injured for much of last season, the Ravens were on the bottom of a competitive division. Now, Jackson returns alongside RB J.K. Dobbins, CB Marlon Humphrey, and CB Marcus Peters. Humphrey and Peters now headline what might be the NFL’s best secondary. There’s plenty of signs that the Ravens can put last season’s struggles behind them.

I do think the Bengals remain competitive after their surprise Super Bowl run last year. QB Joe Burrow and WR Ja’Marr Chase aren’t going away anytime soon. I don’t expect the kind of run we saw last year, but I also don’t expect the Bengals to revert below .500. That leaves the Browns and Steelers falling behind in this division race.

The Browns will be without their new QB Deshaun Watson for the first 11 games. While I think their RB duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and their strong defense can win them a few games in that stretch, Watson would have a lot of ground to make up in order to catch these other teams in the division. I’ve been projecting a Steelers decline for years now, but over the last few years Mike Tomlin has kept them afloat. Between a tough schedule, tough division, and declining defense, I find it hard to believe that Tomlin will extend his above-.500 streak any longer.

AFC South

  1. Indianapolis Colts (12-5, #3 seed in AFC)
  2. Tennessee Titans (8-9)
  3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-13)
  4. Houston Texans (1-16)

If the Colts played in any other division, I’d have them around .500. In fact, I have them 6-5 in non-AFC South match-ups. However, I can’t see any other team in this division giving them much of a challenge. Their defense is strong enough that QB Matt Ryan will be able to get the Colts out to leads in these games without much pressure.

The Titans show some promise as usual, and RB Derrick Henry isn’t going away. Outside of Henry though, this roster looks uninspiring when compared to other AFC rosters. If there’s any surprise contender in this division, it would be Tennessee, but I personally wouldn’t count on it. The Jaguars should see marginal improvement from QB Trevor Lawrence, but I don’t think they spent their money in an optimal way to support him. There are still many holes up and down the roster that leave Jacksonville far from playoff contention. They still show more promise than the Texans though. I don’t see QB Davis Mills as much more than a strong game manager, and outside of WR Brandin Cooks he doesn’t have much proven talent around him to rely on.

AFC West

  1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-3, #2 seed in AFC)
  2. Los Angeles Chargers (12-5, #5 seed in AFC)
  3. Denver Broncos (9-8, #7 seed in AFC)
  4. Las Vegas Raiders (7-10)

Some people expect four teams above .500 in this division, and I think that expectation is a little lofty. That doesn’t take away from the fact that this might be one of the most competitive divisions in recent history. While I do have the Broncos and Raiders losing a decent number of games due to their tough schedules, I think both these teams will be better on the field than their record shows. The Raiders do have some major defensive question marks, but with WR Davante Adams on board, this offense is too good for Vegas to hit rock bottom. I expect the Broncos to be in the mix for much of the season. QB Russell Wilson’s historical late season struggles combined with a tough schedule will cause them to fall behind the Chiefs and Chargers, but I still have them holding onto a playoff spot.

I think the Chiefs maintain the crown here, as QB Patrick Mahomes makes up for the loss of WR Tyreek Hill by utilizing a variety of new faces in the WR corps such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The Chargers could be a threat to that, as their defense gets even stronger with the additions of Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson. I also think QB Justin Herbert is almost as capable, if not just as capable as Mahomes. Either of these teams could be in for a deep playoff run.

NFC East

  1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-6, #4 seed in NFC)
  2. Dallas Cowboys (10-7, #7 seed in NFC)
  3. Washington Commanders (6-11)
  4. New York Giants (3-14)

The NFC East still has not had a repeat winner since the 2003-04 Eagles, and I don’t see that changing this year. The Cowboys, who won in 2021, lost a good portion of the stacked WR corps QB Dak Prescott utilized to get them there. The Eagles, meanwhile, brought in a new #1 WR in A.J. Brown and upgraded the defense significantly. As long as QB Jalen Hurts plays at a serviceable level, I think the Eagles take over in this division, though I still have the Cowboys sneaking into a playoff spot.

The Giants have a lot to prove this year. This might be QB Daniel Jones’ last chance to show that he can succeed with a healthy offense around him. I don’t have much faith in Jones or his WRs though, and I expect now healthy RB Saquon Barkley to get frustrated and leave after another losing season in East Rutherford. The Commanders should outpace them by a little bit, but I don’t see Carson Wentz as the long term answer at QB (who knew Dak Prescott would end up a more reliable QB than either of the top 2 picks from his draft class?). Despite a strong defensive line and some upside across the roster, there are still many problems to address in Washington before they can compete once again.

NFC North

  1. Green Bay Packers (13-4, #1 seed in NFC)
  2. Minnesota Vikings (13-4, #5 seed in NFC)
  3. Detroit Lions (6-11)
  4. Chicago Bears (2-15)

A lot of people are making the case that either the Packers or the Vikings will be the sole success story from this division. Why not both? The Packers may have question marks at WR, but QB Aaron Rodgers has made do with that before and he can do it again. Meanwhile, the Vikings will leave the Mike Zimmer era behind them. I expect the talent they have in all 3 aspects of the game to finally translate into wins under new HC Kevin O’Connell, and O’Connell has already drawn comparisons between WRs Justin Jefferson and Cooper Kupp (who had his historic season in O’Connell’s system).

The Lions can only go so far with Jared Goff under center, but this roster does show some promise. Their defense should be at least serviceable at this point and with a strong supporting cast, Goff could have the occasional big game if he’s not under too much pressure. Bears fans may have faith that Justin Fields can lift this team out of its misery, but I’m not expecting much in Chicago this year. Matt Eberflus is not much of an upgrade over Matt Nagy, and I think the Bears will be giving up too many points for Fields to make up the lost ground.

NFC South

  1. New Orleans Saints (12-5, #2 seed in NFC)
  2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5, #6 seed in NFC)
  3. Carolina Panthers (8-9)
  4. Atlanta Falcons (5-12)

The Saints are the team I’m expecting to exceed most people’s expectations this year. To start off, their defense might be the most well-rounded, filled out defense in football. In addition, a lot of people are concerned about a RB Alvin Kamara suspension, WR Michael Thomas’ health, or QB Jameis Winston’s capability as a starting QB. I don’t think these are really valid concerns at this point. Winston has been fine and thrown far less picks since his eye surgery a few off-seasons ago, Kamara’s suspension is unlikely to happen until 2023, and all signs point to Thomas being a full-go this season. At their peak, this team could be scary.

I have Saints sweeping the Bucs in the regular season (as usual), but that won’t stop Tampa Bay from staying neck and neck with them in the division race. Even without WR Antonio Brown and TE Rob Gronkowski, any team with Tom Brady (even an aging Tom Brady) under center is going to be competitive. Besides, Brady still has one of the NFL’s best supporting casts.

QB Baker Mayfield should allow the Panthers to avoid the basement of the division and win a few extra games. Mayfield has RB Christian McCaffrey and WR D.J. Moore to lean on, so that should help him out, but this team still doesn’t quite stack up with the Saints and Bucs. That leaves the Falcons at the bottom, who despite an improving defense don’t have much to be excited about this season.

NFC West

  1. Los Angeles Rams (11-6, #3 seed in NFC)
  2. Arizona Cardinals (9-8)
  3. San Francisco 49ers (8-9)
  4. Seattle Seahawks (2-15)

Despite a tough schedule, I expect the Rams to remain on top of this division. QB Matthew Stafford may start off a little slow due to his elbow injury, but he has a strong supporting cast, and Rams DT Aaron Donald is still in every other QB’s nightmares.

Behind the Rams, I don’t see much promise in this division. The Cardinals have relied on strong starts in years they’ve made the playoffs. They’ll be without WR DeAndre Hopkins for 6 games, so that might be more difficult than usual. There is a lot to like about the 49ers, but the secondary is a concern and we haven’t really seen how much QB Trey Lance is capable of. I’ve seen Patrick Mahomes comparisons, and people who expect Lance to be like Mahomes and lead San Francisco to the playoffs in his first year starting may be disappointed.

I still expect those two teams to finish well ahead of Seattle. The Seahawks have no proven options to start at QB, which will likely hold this offense and the entire team back throughout the season.

Playoff Predictions

There’s a lot of competitive teams in the league right now, so I’m expecting a lot of playoff upsets much like last year. I have 4 of 6 wild card teams winning their first playoff game, and essentially half the teams advancing to each round after that are wild card teams.

In the NFC, I have Tom Brady clutching up for the playoffs and beating the Rams, Packers, and Saints on another Wild Card Super Bowl run. In the AFC, I think the Chiefs or Chargers could put up a good fight, but in the end I have Josh Allen leading the top-seeded Bills to a conference title.

A Bills-Bucs Super Bowl will bring a very interesting narrative: Tom Brady against his former divisional rival. I’m expecting a Super Bowl LII like game, with Brady putting up a serious fight, but falling short in the end. It will signal a new era for the league in which the Bills, not Tom Brady, are the team to beat.

If the Bills do actually win this Super Bowl, I may not hear the end of it now that I’m living in Ithaca which is clear cut Bills territory. However, my unbiased opinion is that they are the most likely team to come out on top. This could be the year their roster is talented enough for them to put it all together and win on the biggest stage.

Will Brady retire after playing in another Super Bowl? If he wins, I think it’s pretty likely he does. However, after a loss, he may still be hungry for more.

Before I wrap up this article, I want to include one more prediction: my pick for tonight’s opener.

Opening Night

It would be easy to predict a shootout here. However, I’m expecting more of a close, defensive battle in this one. QB Matthew Stafford should play it a little safer considering his elbow problems, but I still expect him to connect well with WRs Cooper Kupp and Allen Robinson. In the end though, QB Josh Allen is better equipped to win this game. Allen and his receivers at full health are a scary sight, and even if Stafford was healthy I think Allen would be likely to outperform him.

Enjoy tonight’s game, and enjoy the rest of the season. I’ll have more NFL coverage on this website as well as weekly Flutie Foundation-sponsored NFL episodes on The Master Plan Podcast with my cousin, Michael Philipkosky.

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