With the offseason largely in the books, it’s time to predict the field for the 2022 NFL playoffs. Battles for the No. 1 seeds in each conference will be hard-fought, while several teams that didn’t make the postseason in 2021 are sure to contend for a slot next year. Here’s how we see the field shaping up in both the AFC and NFC.
Predicting the 2022 NFL playoffs | AFC
No. 1 seed: Buffalo Bills
For the first time in the Sean McDermott/Brandon Beane era, the Bills took a massive swing in free agency, inking future Hall of Fame edge rusher Von Miller to a six-year, $120 million deal. A Buffalo defense that had already led the NFL in points allowed and expected points added per play only got more robust through the additions of Miller, DaQuan Jones, Shaq Lawson, first-round cornerback Kaiir Elam, and others.
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The Bills will face improved competition in the AFC East, but it’s hard to imagine the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, or New York Jets walking away with the division crown. Buffalo will be gunning for the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage, both of which should prove critical in a loaded AFC. Given the difficulty of other divisions in the conference, especially the AFC North and AFC West, the Bills look like the clear favorite to come away with the top seed.
No. 2 seed: Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers haven’t made the postseason in four years, but a playoff appearance will be well within their reach in 2022. While head coach Brandon Staley’s game management decisions didn’t always work out during his first season in charge, expect him to continue his aggressive nature. Over time, his analytically-backed choices should lean more in LA’s favor.
General manager Tom Telesco used the free agent period and the draft to fill nearly every hole on his club’s roster. Trade acquisition Khalil Mack gives the Chargers a bookend for Joey Bosa, while new cornerback J.C. Jackson will allow Staley to deploy more man-to-man schemes. Plus, Los Angeles wisely augmented their porous run defense by signing Austin Johnson and Sebastian Joseph-Day to modest deals.
On offense, first-round pick Zion Johnson will take over at right guard. That leaves the Chargers with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL — except at right tackle, where journeyman Storm Norton and sixth-round pick Jamaree Salyer currently project to battle it out. A free agent could make sense here, as options like Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, and Daryl Williams are still looking for jobs.
No. 3 seed: Baltimore Ravens
No team was hit harder by injuries in 2021 than the Ravens. In fact, no club may have been more affected by health issues in a long time. According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore’s 191.2 adjusted games lost were the most for any NFL team since at least 2001.
Injuries to key starters like Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, Ronnie Stanley, Marlon Humphrey, and others left the Ravens a shell of themselves. They lost seven consecutive games to close the season and missed out on the playoffs.
Some teams have better medical staff than others, but injury luck is typically just that — luck. Injuries are largely random in nature, and the law of averages says the Ravens should be able to bounce back in 2022.
They fortified their roster through one of this year’s best draft classes. First-rounders Kyle Hamilton and Tyler Linderbaum should make an immediate impact, while David Ojabo has a chance to contribute late in the season.
No. 4 seed: Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are playing the quarterback musical chairs game again, and this time around, Matt Ryan landed in the seat. Odds are, Ryan will provide a performance that’s closer to Philip Rivers’ 2020 campaign than Carson Wentz’s 2021 disaster. Indy’s offensive line should be able to keep the longtime Falcons starter upright, although a Dennis Kelly/Matt Pryor/Bernhard Raimann left tackle competition isn’t all that inspiring.
Plus, the Colts play in arguably the worst division in the NFL. The Tennessee Titans look poised to take a step backward after trading A.J. Brown, and the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans aren’t ready to compete just yet. Indianapolis will play the easiest schedule in the AFC, while Tennessee will face the 12th-hardest.
No. 5 seed: Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs will never rebuild with Patrick Mahomes under center, but they did hit the “reload” button this offseason. Trading Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins allowed Kansas City to reinvest in multiple receivers, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and second-round pick Skyy Moore. On the other side of the ball, rookies Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis should help take Steve Spagnuolo’s defense to the next level.
No Andy Reid/Mahomes team will take too far of a step backward, but there might be a few hiccups in the first year featuring a revamped roster. Combined with the Chargers’ excellent offseason, it’s enough to push the Chiefs into a Wild Card slot.
No. 6 seed: Cincinnati Bengals
While the Bengals took a major step forward in 2021, regression could be imminent next season. Cincinnati faced an easy schedule last year, wasn’t forced to deal with many injuries, and avoided the Bills en route to a Super Bowl appearance. All told, though, they only ranked 17th in DVOA, well below the range of a truly elite contender.
On the plus side, the Bengals made the most of their offseason, using free agency to fix their offensive line and the draft to strengthen their secondary. They did enough to stave off that regression for at least one more year, but they might not be able to repeat as AFC North champions.
No. 7 seed: Cleveland Browns
The final playoff slot in the AFC comes down to the Browns and the Denver Broncos. Although Deshaun Watson will likely be suspended as a result of 22 women accusing him of sexual misconduct, Cleveland should be able to get by with Jacoby Brissett. Amari Cooper and David Bell will boost the receiving corps, while the Browns’ defense could be among the best in the league.
Denver will clearly improve with Russell Wilson, but there are enough questions about their defense and offensive line that we see them just missing the postseason.
Predicting the 2022 NFL playoffs | NFC
No. 1 seed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady is back, and that puts the Buccaneers in the catbird seat in the NFC. Tampa continued to go all-in during the offseason, re-upping Carlton Davis and Ryan Jensen while adding Russell Gage (free agency), Shaq Mason (trade), and Logan Hall (draft). Even if Chris Godwin can’t immediately return from his torn ACL, the Bucs have enough offensive pieces to make up for his absence.
Bruce Arians is gone, but things shouldn’t change much with Byron Leftwich calling the offense and new head coach Todd Bowles retaining control over the defense. The Buccaneers get the benefit of playing the Atlanta Falcons and Carolin Panthers twice, and the rest of the NFC is weak enough that they should be able to claim the No. 1 seed.
No. 2 seed: Los Angeles Rams
Will a Super Bowl hangover affect the Rams in 2022? Probably not, as they did enough during the offseason to keep them on top in the NFC West. They weren’t able to retain Von Miller, but Los Angeles did add Allen Robinson and Bobby Wagner to an already star-studded roster. GM Les Snead also made a smart draft-day trade to re-acquire slot cornerback Troy Hill from the Browns.
The Rams lost both offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell (Vikings HC) and defensive passing game coordinator Ejiro Evero (Broncos DC), but Sean McVay has dealt with brain drain before. Their division is always tough, but it would be a surprise if the Rams don’t land a high seed in the 2022 playoffs.
No. 3 seed: Green Bay Packers
The Packers’ defense has a legitimate chance to be a top-five unit in 2022. That’s the good news. The bad news comes on the other side of the ball, where Aaron Rodgers’ top three post-Davante Adams receivers are Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, and Christian Watson.
We’ve all seen what happens when Aaron Rodgers gets counted out, but this will be the worst group of pass catchers he’s ever worked with. A free agent addition makes sense, and there are still plenty of veteran receivers on the open market, including Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, and Emmanuel Sanders.
Despite the roster issues, the Packers will always be in contention with Rodgers under center, especially when he’s coming off back-to-back MVP awards. But they are no longer the favorites for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
No. 4 seed: Philadelphia Eagles
Now that Jalen Hurts has a new weapon in A.J. Brown, can he take a step forward and solidify himself as the Eagles’ long-term quarterback? We’re betting on improvement from the third-year quarterback as he enters his second season in Nick Sirianni’s offense. Philadelphia had the league’s highest run rate last year, and while they’ll continue to pound the rock, expect the Eagles to air it out a bit more now that Brown is in town.
Other positives for Philadelphia? They have the NFC’s easiest schedule, bolstered by away games against Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, and Texans. And their defensive line might be the best in the league — it’s so deep that Jordan Davis and Josh Sweat are currently projected as backups.
No. 5 seed: Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys hardly ever play the free agent game, but they were especially stagnant this offseason, as their only notable additions were receiver James Washington and defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. Their list of losses — which includes Amari Cooper, Randy Gregory, Connor Williams, and Cedrick Wilson Jr. — is much more extensive.
Having said that, Dallas is still talented enough (and the NFC is still weak enough) that they should sail into the postseason, even if it’s only as a Wild Card team.
No. 6 seed: Minnesota Vikings
We’ll round out the NFC with two teams that failed to make the postseason in 2021 and now have new head coaches in place. Let’s start with the Vikings, where O’Connell is now in charge. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen form a respectable offensive corps that should be able to put up points, especially if their talents are harnessed by an improved offensive scheme.
Former head coach Mike Zimmer was an old-school guy, and he regularly made head-scratching game management decisions. O’Connell might give Minnesota a boost in that area in 2022.
No. 7 seed: New Orleans Saints
This last playoff spot could go to any number of NFC teams. The San Francisco 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship Game last year, but there are questions about Trey Lance’s readiness and Deebo Samuel’s status with the team. Their division rivals, the Arizona Cardinals, also made the playoffs a season ago, but concerns about Kyler Murray’s relationship with the team and Kliff Kingsbury’s in-game tactics are worrying.
The Saints, meanwhile, have given Jameis Winston two new weapons (Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry) and a new left tackle (Trevor Penning). On defense, Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye complement an already solid secondary led by Marshon Lattimore. Can new head coach Dennis Allen be as effective as Sean Payton? Probably not — but this roster has enough talent to land the seventh seed in the NFC.
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