“Professional football in America is a special game, a unique game. …It is a rare game. The men who play it make it so. All of them are fearless. All of them are strong, quick. And all of them are part of a story that began long ago. A story written by men who found, in the sport, a demanding measure for their own courage and ability.” – John Facenda, NFL Films “The Power and the Glory”

It’s already Week 1. (And soon, it will be Christmas.)

Once again, the last days of summer welcome the National Football League with a warm embrace that reaches worldwide. But alas, as the orbit pulls “planet football” away from its comforting climate, the cold will soon creep in. For 14 NFL franchises, the winter brings forth a chance at glory. For the rest, another long wait for summer’s embrace.

Party time.

What surprises lie in store for our beloved teams? Who will be the breakout rookie sensation? The officiating: could it be any worse than the 2021 campaign? Can Russell”  Let’s Ride” Wilson guide the Broncos to the playoffs? Are there more than three “really good” teams in the NFC? More importantly, are the Eagles going back to the Super Bowl? Every one of these questions gets answered.

All fans have hope. Texans Nation has hope, for goodness’ sake. It’s arguably the best time of the year. We’re all set for the 103rd NFL season. I took the route of sharing my thoughts about all 32 teams. There are levels this season. I would say there are about four or five teams that have legit championship possibilities. About three or four more could get there. Then, there are all the other teams. Last season, it seemed more clear-cut who were the two best teams in each conference—and it didn’t end up as we imagined (Rams-Bengals, and not Bucs-Chiefs).

The unpredictability is the beauty of the NFL. In all the years that I’ve attempted to call my shot, only one season (2014 – SB XLVIII – SEA vs. DEN) made me feel like I actually knew what I was talking about. I feel strong this year, nonetheless. I’ll get this right… and I’ll keep telling myself that.

This year, I ranked the teams by conference and included what I think the teams’ best and worst possible records will be at the season’s end.

AFC

1. Buffalo Bills – Like many, I love the Bills in 2022. Josh Allen has a little bit left to prove. Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis are among the best one-two punches at the wide receiver position for any team. The latter will likely have a breakout season similar to Davis’s performance in the 2021 postseason. The main “?” is the defense—who, according to CBS Sports, is the #1 unit in the NFL. (I’m not 100% sure that’s the case.) Have they done enough to solidify the middle? Von Miller helps on the edge, on the field, and in the locker room. Tre’Davious White is another key. Will he recover from his ACL injury and be the cornerback of years past? Looks like the Bills may have to wait a couple of weeks for White to start the season. Lots of questions about a stellar defense, but I believe they have the pieces to end up in Glendale on Feb. 12.

RECORD: 13-4, Super Bowl Champions, at best; 10-7, div. champs, at worst

2. Kansas City Chiefs – “The Chefs” are the NFL’s new symbol of excellence. Year after year, Andy Reid brings a contending team to the table (as he’s done for nearly his entire coaching career). One minor setback is the lack of Tyreek Hill in the starting lineup. Hill signed with MIA in the offseason. Opening at ARI and following that up with subsequent games vs. LAC, at IND, and then at TB on a Sunday Night doesn’t bode well for any team. If KC wants to have a moment to breathe, they need to split this opening tilt, or 10 wins may be more of an uphill, rather steep climb for Mahomes and co. The AFC West is no joke in 2022.

12-5, AFC Champions, at best; 10-7, Wild Card appearance, at worst

3. Los Angeles Chargers – This is a fun team. The Chargers are another group that has a QB/RB/WR tandem that’s tough to beat. Justin Herbert, like Allen, still needs to show me something in terms of being a killer in late-game situations. Corey Linsley is probably the second-best center in football (See: Jason Kelce). If they get their OL situated before Week 3 or 4, the offense will eat well in 2022. It doesn’t help that they play in the best division in football, but I think they will be able to overcome the bitter rivalries to make the playoffs this season. Their first seven weeks contain winnable games that will be important when determining the AFC West champion.

12-5, AFC title game appearance at best; 9-8, playoff appearance, at worst

4. Cincinnati Bengals – The Bengals are getting no respect in the preseason. They’re a top-10 team, for sure. However, I don’t think I rank them at the bottom of that list. When it’s all said and done, Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase could become a historic tandem. The AFC North will play the NFC South in 2022. Meaning: the Bengals (and possibly the Ravens) have a solid shot at an 11-win season, which could help them out in seeding because I don’t think the AFC West champ gets more than 11. The back end of the Bengals’ schedule is pretty rough on paper at season’s sunrise, but that may not matter if they stack wins early on.

12-5, AFC Champions, at best; 8-9, missed the playoffs, at worst

5. Tennessee Titans – Titans will again reap the rewards of a down division if Derrick Henry stays healthy. Sure, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones are gone, but I think adding veteran Robert Woods and drafting Treylon Burks is a positive. The main issue with the Titans over the past couple of seasons is the inconsistency on defense. They need to find a way to keep the defense off the field (so they’re not gassed by the Wild Card Round). Remember: last season, the Titans were the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs losing to CIN in the Divisional Round.

11-6, div. champs, at best; 9-8 miss playoffs, at worst

6. Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens have underachieved in the last two seasons. Unfortunately, the emergence of the Bengals as the division’s best team left BAL looking up after starting 8-3 and then losing six straight to finish the campaign. I still think a healthy Ravens squad can roll with the Bengals for the division title in 2022. Injuries crushed the Ravens last season. They need Lamar Jackson on the field. He’s a difference-maker. I’m also interested to see the output from J.K. Dobbins once he’s 100%.

11-6, div. champs, at best; 8-9 miss playoffs, at worst

7. Denver Broncos – Signing Russell Wilson immediately puts the Broncs in playoff contention. Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy will benefit from the catchable footballs consistently floating their way, but I think the most important piece on offense is running back Javonte Williams. This season could potentially be Williams’s breakout year. On the other side of the ball, OLB Randy Gregory chose DEN over DAL and replaced Von Miller, who left for BUF. In my opinion, losing a Pro Bowl talent and then adding another Pro Bowl talent leaves their defense no worse for wear. The Broncos are another team that needs to remain consistent to contend in this nightmare division.

10-7, Wild Card appearance, at best; 7-10, at worst

8. Indianapolis Colts – The Colts are a difficult team to project. Matt Ryan is now their starting quarterback. Allegedly, this is the best offensive group helmed by Ryan. Jonathan Taylor should have another top-tier season. Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell, and Alec Pierce are a trio that I don’t put at the top of a comprehensive wide receivers list. The weapons are what will make or break the Ryan-led offense in 2022. Couple all that with an up-and-down defense, and I’m looking at a 10-7/9-8 season. The team has playoff potential due to divisional play.

10-7, div. champs/Wild Card appearance, at best; 7-10, at worst

9. Las Vegas Raiders – I believe in the offseason moves the Raiders made to better both sides of the football. Davante Adams is a no-brainer that makes life easier for QB Derek Carr and WR Hunter Renfrow. The wideouts lower on the depth chart may also benefit from week to week. They added Pro Bowl DE Chandler Jones from Arizona and potential difference-maker LB Jayon Brown from Tennessee to better a shaky defense. The Raiders have improved their depth. Unfortunately, their depth isn’t as thorough as that of the AFC West. The Raiders could be a 10-win team in the AFC North or South. The next couple of seasons could be a struggle for Vegas to get in the playoffs, winning 9-10 games each year.

10-7, Wild Card appearance, at best; 7-10, at worst

10. Miami Dolphins – In the AFC East, it’s all about how tough teams play the Bills. Currently, the Dolphins have beaten Buffalo since December 2018. They’ll have overcome the recent 7-game losing streak if they want to play in January. The Fins have nice weapons but no quarterback. Tua isn’t the guy. However, WR Tyreek Hill is a different animal. He’s explosive and can flip a game if he gets open. His utilization will be essential. How much will they use him? Will they burn him out? The defense doesn’t blow me away. I project another middle-of-the-road year in Miami Gardens.

9-8, Wild Card appearance, at best; 7-10, at worst

11. New England Patriots – Did anyone forget the Pats made the playoffs last season? I’m intrigued by the possibilities Mac Jones’s second year brings to the table. I pool them into the same tier as MIA. Could New England see the playoffs again this year? Sure. But I think a 9-8 record would be a high ceiling for either team. The Patriots need to find a way to steal one or two from Buffalo. That’s weird to type if you consider NE’s ridiculous record versus BUF from 2003 to 2019.

9-8, miss playoffs, at best; 6-11, at worst

12. Cleveland Browns – I had the pleasure of traveling to Cleveland for some preseason football in August. I’m not sure how hopeful the climate was in prior seasons. I didn’t get an “excited” vibe from those families sitting with us in the Dawg Pound. I don’t know if you heard, but the Browns picked up Deshaun Watson’s contract earlier this year, and yes, it was a subject of contention. I’m not going to rehash it. If you look at Watson on the field, the Browns have a better quarterback now. However, where will the Browns be by Week 12 when Watson is expected to return (maybe)? I’m not sure a Josh Rosen redemption arc is a realistic narrative. There’s a solid defense in CLE, but I’m not sure about the other side of the ball staying consistent.

8-9, miss playoffs, at best; 6-11, at worst

13. Pittsburgh Steelers – The “Big Ben” era in Pittsburgh is officially over. Let the Mitch Trubisky era begin. Am I right, yinzers? I’m kidding. I’ll be interested to see how long Mike Tomlin allows Trubisky to hold serve before calling on rookie QB Kenny Pickett to take over. I believe the move will be made later this season, but if the running game and defense don’t perform in the first couple of weeks, who knows. The hometown kid (from New Jersey) may get a crack at it early. Either way, I don’t see the Steelers in the 2022 playoffs.

8-9, miss playoffs, at best; 5-12, at worst

14. Jacksonville Jaguars – I would love to see Doug Pederson succeed in this first year coaching the Jaguars. Unfortunately, he’s coaching the Jaguars. I can’t name one defensive starter without looking up their depth chart. Other than “T-Law” and James Robinson, the same goes on the other side of the ball. It’s not that I don’t think they have good players. I just don’t and never have cared about this team. I’ll keep an eye out this season, though. By the way, Dougy P: Super Bowl LII Champion.

7-10, at best; 5-12, at worst

15. New York Jets – My thoughts on JAX could make one think I have them as my worst team in the AFC. Not so. The Jets are gonna Jet. If there’s one team in the NFL whose fan base annually attempts to put into the air a notion of unreasonable success when there clearly won’t be, it’s “Jets Nation.” On paper, the Jets had some of the best early-round acquisitions of the 2022 Draft… if those players were drafted by any other NFL franchises. They haven’t had a quarterback since Super Bowl III. You don’t win without a great quarterback; thus, they haven’t.

7-10 at best; 5-12 at worst

16. Houston Texans – are a mess. All Watson junk aside, what have they done to better their organization? Lovie Smith is the new head coach. Davis Mills is (officially) the new starting QB. They sound like a new USFL franchise. The Texans don’t know what establishing “core personnel” means. I think these guys have a six-win ceiling at the very best.

6-11 at best; 4-13 at worst

AFC DIVISION WINNERS: Chiefs, Titans, Bengals, Bills (AFC Champs)

AFC WILD CARDS: Broncos, Chargers, Ravens

NFC

1. Los Angeles Rams – In terms of depth, the Rams are the top-tier team in the NFC. The defending Super Bowl Champions head into the 2022 campaign, looking toward continued success. They match up with the NFC South and AFC West, both good and bad. At worst, the Rams travel to Tampa in November but then have the privilege of playing the Panthers, Saints, and Falcons. Playing the AFC West is a big yikes for all NFC West teams this year. It is what it is, as they say. If everyone stays healthy, the Rams should win the division and pencil themselves into the Divisional Round at the very least. I can’t deny that the Rams are, right now, the best team in the NFC.

13-4, NFC Champions, at best; 11-6, Wild Card appearance, at worst

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – It’s hard to argue that the Bucs don’t have the best depth chart in the NFL. They do. The offensive side of the ball is loaded with weapons (injury issues with the O-line are notable); their defense is loaded-loaded. On paper, there is no reason why the Bucs don’t end up playing in Los Angeles this February. Are they as good as the last two squads? Maybe not. However, that’s why they play the game though. Everything’s rosy until it isn’t. Tom Terrific will hit a wall, and I think that, finally, it will happen in 2022. Lest we forget that he retired in the offseason and then decided to return once Bruce Arians conveniently “stepped into a new role” as a consultant while Todd Bowles took over as head coach. I take the team’s revitalization with a pinch of salt. They’re still a pack of heartbreakers, though.

13-4, NFC Champions, at best; 10-7, Wild Card appearance, at worst

3. Green Bay Packers – Who wants to see Aaron Rodgers win an MVP throwing to deck chairs and lawn furniture? *raises hand* The NFC North is up for grabs if the Packers don’t win nine games. If there’s one perennial favorite who should go 6-0 versus their division in 2022, it’s the Pack. Take away #12, and Green Bay doesn’t have a single player that jumps off the page. But all of their starters can play good football, and that’s really all that matters. It could be a great story if they make a run to the Super Bowl.

12-5, NFC title game appearance, at best; 9-8, Wild Card appearance, at worst

4. Philadelphia Eagles – had no reason to be in the 2021 postseason. The NFC East has been horrendous over the last three seasons. Yet, they played in the Wild Card Round in Tampa Bay and got worked in the process. If it wasn’t the Eagles getting smoked, it would’ve been any other team left in the conference. Still, if you make the playoffs, you better show up. I think not showing up last year stuck with GM Howie Roseman and then-rookie head coach Nick Sirianni. The Birds went out and got star WR A.J. Brown from TEN and serviceable WR3 Zach Pascal from IND to make Jalen Hurts life easier. On defense, drafting two proven starters from the 2021 National Champions and upgrading every position is a huge plus. The Eagles should win the NFC East in Sirianni’s second season. (And if you’re familiar with the NFC East div. winners trend, it’s very likely.)

11-6, div. champs, at best; 8-9, miss the playoffs, at worst

5. Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys have gotten a pass over the last couple of seasons. Before winning 12 games in 2021, their previous campaigns were lackluster since their 13-win season in 2016. Yet, they are still included in the mix of contenders yearly because many television execs grew up Cowboys fans. I’m kidding. (Not really.) DAL has All-Pro talent. The defense is one of the best groups in football. The focus should be on improving an offense that should produce way better statistically. The expectations are always high in Dallas. Can Dak get back to his former self? That will be crucial to their success in 2022.

11-6, div. champs, at best; 8-9, miss the playoffs, at worst

6. San Francisco 49ers – Reports from training camp noted QB Trey Lance was having issues with consistency. Some quarterbacks are quicker to get back on the horse than others. It’s worth noting that head coach Kyle Shannahan hasn’t won without Jimmy G. as the starting QB. He’s, like, 8-28 without him. You need a steady QB to win football games. Additions to the secondary will help what I expect to be a stellar defensive unit. After looking at their slate on paper, I don’t see many opportunities to string together a streak of 4-5 wins. However, I think the Niners have the talent to win five of six/six of seven at some point. The matchup versus AFC West opponents is going to be tough. Splitting those games could be huge by December.

10-7, Div. Round appearance, at best; 8-9, miss the playoffs, at worst

7. Minnesota Vikings – I’m reading a few valued opinions saying that the Vikings will win the NFC North in 2022. I disagree. If they pull that off, they’ll need to win a lot of 38-35 games. The Vikes have nothing to offer on defense. Statistically, they ranked in the bottom of the barrel (across the board) last season. Still, fans remain hopeful the defense will rank in the top 15 in 2022. Newsflash: if you’re hoping your defense is, at minimum, 15th overall, that should tell you the story. Kirk Cousins will need to produce an MVP-caliber regular season if MIN wants to continue playing in Jan. Additionally, if one thinks newly signed WR Jalen Reagor from the Eagles is an excellent compliment to Justin Jefferson, I have news for you… he’s not. Trust me.

10-7, Wild Card appearance, at best; 7-10, at worst

8. Arizona Cardinals – The Cards are another team I pool into the same category as the Vikings, Raiders, Dolphins, and Pats. Could they pull off a 9-10-win season? Sure. Will they? I seriously doubt it. QB Kyler Murray signed a new deal with specific parameters on how much time Murray could spend in Caldera—the name of the current battle royale island in the video game Call of Duty: Warzone. Once word got out (about how ridiculous it is to give a player $250 million to not play video games as much), the org and Murray came to a restructured agreement. Still, get out of town with that. I don’t want a QB (or point guard) making CoD one of their priorities. Murray alone is the main reason I don’t see ARI in the postseason.

9-8, miss playoffs, at best; 7-10, at worst

9. New Orleans Saints – Sports journalism legend Peter King thinks the Saints will end up with the best record in the NFC. I’m unsure if he wrote that while attending Burning Man last week. If so, I understand his headspace. I don’t think he attended the event, though. I’m trying to figure out a way to somewhat agree with him. I can’t. As I write this, Vegas has NO slotted as +4000 to win the Super Bowl. They’re not at the bottom tier of teams unlikely to win it all, but they’re close. I’m sorry, but although Jameis Winston has a cannon, he doesn’t have the ability to “lead” a championship team. I won’t deny they have some offensive weapons like Kamara, Thomas, and rookie WR Chris Olave. I don’t think they stink; they’re just not enough for me. They’re worth observing from afar.

8-9, miss playoffs, at best; 6-11, at worst

10. Washington Commanders – When it comes to the NFC this season, I predict a severe gap in W-L records. Furthermore, I feel it starts in the NFC East. Yeah, I have the Commanders tenth on my list of NFC teams. However, the gap between them and my feelings about the 2022 Saints is relatively large. WAS isn’t winning more than seven or eight games at the very best. Now, the Commanders have a relatively easy schedule compared to their last one. Will it really matter? Carson Wentz is their new quarterback. They call him “Mr. Glass,” you know? Can he find that inner 2016-17 and create some magic? (Holy geez, I hope not. Gross. They’re so gross.)

7-10 at best; 5-12 at worst

11. Detroit Lions – There’s not much going on in Detroit. They managed to draft DE Aidan Hutchinson second overall. If DET is going to be somewhat successful, that kid must work hard because he’ll likely be on the field for a good bit of regulation. I’m envisioning a hot start and a bitter, cold finish for this franchise that manages to underachieve 90% of the time.

6-11 at best; 4-13 at worst

12. New York Giants – Take another lap. The only way I see the Giants having a joyous football season is by having injuries plague Dallas and Philadelphia. They have a new GM and another new head coach. The G-Men made a ton of draft picks. The waiting game begins. Speaking of, Daniel Jones isn’t the QB that I thought he would become. He’s made some pretty throws throughout his career, but it’s to the tune of one good heave every other game. The schedule is just short of manageable for the talent they’re throwing out on the field. Name me a star player on this team. I’ll wait…

6-11 at best; 4-13 at worst

13. Carolina Panthers – The Panthers managed to win 10 games over the last two seasons. Can they get over the 5-win hump? They should, right? Baker Mayfield is an improvement at quarterback (I guess). Hey, if Christian McCaffery remains in good health, that could manifest three to four wins. CAR has decent wideouts. But with their weapons on offense, the defense sucks. Well, I shouldn’t say that. The defense is “young” and “unproven.” Fortunately, the Panthers play in the worst division in football. Still, they’re not close.

5-12 at best; 4-13 at worst

14. Chicago Bears – The poor Bears. Justin Fields and co. are already preparing for hibernation. Another team with a new GM and head coach. They have to play the AFC & NFC East. Their “odd” game is versus the Texans, which should be a “barnburner” that airs on about 7,000 televisions that week. I’ll say it now, the Bears win that game. Why not? It’ll be one of four in total this season.

4-13 at best; 3-14 at worst

15. Seattle Seahawks – Out of all the teams I’m predicting, the Seahawks (more so than the Saints) could really make me look like an idiot. However, I don’t see this team winning more than four games this year. Take your pick of starting QB: Geno Smith or Drew Lock. Then, go and cry, “12th.” Prove me wrong.

3-14 at best; 2-15 at worst

16. Atlanta Falcons – It doesn’t get much worse than the Texans, Bears, and Seahawks heading into the 2022 season. ATL: “Hold my beer, please, and thank you.” I have a little exercise for you readers. Go look up Falcons’ blogs. It’s entertaining at the number of straws they’re grasping.

3-14, at best; 1-16, at worst

NFC DIVISION WINNERS: Rams (NFC Champs), Bucs, Packers, Eagles

NFC WILD CARDS: Cowboys, 49ers, Vikings

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SUPER BOWL LVII: Bills over Rams via Avalanche Blue Thunder Bomb at 31:20.

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Enjoy the season, everyone. Best of luck.

Matt de Simone is the Managing Editor of The Fincastle Herald and The Vinton Messenger. Big time Philadelphia sports fan. Go Birds.

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