What could possibly top last year? For the 2nd time in my life, my beloved Los Angeles Rams (For the record, their first Super Bowl happened in St. Louis in 1999) won the Super Bowl. Thinking back about how this occurred, it is interesting to focus on the small details. What would have happened if Matthew Stafford had not hit Copper Kupp for a long pass to get the Rams into field goal range to beat the Buccaneers? A game that the Rams dominated but almost lost because of four fumbles. What if the 49ers had not upset the Packers because their Achilles heel (The Special Teams) rose up and ended their season with a blocked punt disaster? The Rams have not been able to beat this modern-day version of the Packers. Could they have beat the Packers in the frozen tundra if they had survived the 49er playoff game? What about the 49ers 4th quarter meltdown in the NFC Championship? A game that they had under control until the wheels came off. Or if Sean McVay had not opened up the Rams offense for the last drive to allow Copper Kupp and Stafford to do their thing and drive the team to the Super Bowl championship. Lots of small decisions and fortune are often required for a team to reach the pinnacle of the NFL. So will it happen again?
Before I go into my pre-season predictions and team-by-team analysis, I want to bring up something that came to my attention. This observation is mainly focused on the NFC. Going back to 1998, the AFC has been the elite conference for quarterbacks. Looking at the teams that have won AFC Titles and Super Bowls, it is a pretty short list of superstars. The New England Patriots possess all 9 AFC Titles out of the AFC East winning 6 Super Bowls with Tom Brady. Peyton Manning possesses 4 AFC Titles. 2 with the AFC South Indianapolis Colts and 1 Super Bowl win and 2 more with the AFC West Denver Broncos with another Super Bowl win. Ben Roethlisberger won 3 AFC Titles and 2 Super Bowls with the AFC North Pittsburgh Steelers. This accounts for 16 of the last 24 Super Bowl appearances for the AFC. Throwing Patrick Mahomes into the equation, the modern-day elite quarterback of the AFC, who has won 2 AFC Championships already and a Super Bowl. John Elway even belongs on this list as his last AFC Title and Super Bowl occurred in 1998. The remaining AFC Super Bowl appearances belong to the Baltimore Ravens who have won 2 AFC Titles and 2 Super Bowls with incredible defensive teams and an average quarterback (For the record, Trent Dilfer in 2000 and Joe Flacco in 2012). The other appearances are the Tennessee Titans AFC Championship in 1999 guided by the incredible and now deceased Steve McNair, the Oakland Raiders AFC Title in 2002 with Rich Gannon, and in 2021, the Cincinnati Bengals AFC Title with Joe Burrow. If Mahomes and Burrow end up in the Hall of Fame, this means that the AFC has been dominated by elite quarterbacks with only the 2 Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl Championships and the singular appearances by the Titans and Raiders as outliers. The AFC is 14-10 in the last 24 Super Bowls. There has never been a greater argument for why quarterbacks are the centerpiece of any NFL team.
So let’s dive into the NFC. There are two interesting trends here. If you go back to the early years of the Super Bowl, the NFC East was the dominant conference during the first 32 Super Bowls ending in 1997. The NFC East participated in half of these Super Bowls. Dallas (8), Washington (5), N.Y. Giants (2), and Philadelphia (1) with 16 NFC Titles and 10 Super Bowl wins amongst themselves. The next closest division would be the NFC Central/North with 9 NFC Titles and 4 Super Bowls. Green Bay has 4 NFC Titles and 3 Super Bowls, the Minnesota Vikings have 4 NFC Titles, and the Chicago Bears earned 1 NFC Title and Super Bowl. The NFC West was the outlier back then with only the San Francisco 49ers 5 NFC Titles and Super Bowl wins giving the division any value during this time. The Los Angeles Rams and the eventual AFC bound Baltimore Colts (Now Indianapolis) are the only other teams during this time with an NFC Title out of the West. Since 1998, the history of the NFC has shifted west. The NFC East, thanks mainly to the Giants, has only had 5 NFC Titles over the last 24 years. The New York Giants have 3 NFC Titles and 2 Super Bowl wins while the Philadelphia Eagles have 2 NFC Titles and 1 Super Bowl win. The Cowboys and Redskins have been shut out over this last quarter of a century. The NFC North is even more pathetic. The one team that left the old NFC Central division has had more success than all the NFC North teams combined. The Green Bay Packers are the only team in this division with a Super Bowl win in their only appearance during this timeframe. The Chicago Bears are the only other team with an NFC Title from this division. The North has had 2 Super Bowl appearances in 24 years. The NFC South has been the second most successful division. Every team in this division has played in the Super Bowl since 1998. Atlanta has 2 NFC Titles (Their first one was when the team was in the NFC West); the old NFC Central Tampa Bay Buccaneers have 2 NFC Titles and 2 Super Bowls. The Carolina Panthers also have 2 NFC Titles, and the New Orleans Saints have 1 NFC Title and Super Bowl win. That is 6 NFC Titles and 3 Super Bowl wins for this division. But the NFC West has been the class of the NFL for the past 24 years. Counting the Atlanta Falcons NFC Title in 1998, the NFC West has 11 NFC Titles in 24 years. In order, the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams have 4 NFC Titles and 2 Super Bowls, the Seattle Seahawks have 3 NFC Titles and 1 Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers have 2 NFC Titles, and the Arizona Cardinals have 1 NFC Title. Even though they have won as many Super Bowls over the past 24 years as the NFC East and South (With a miserable 3-8 Super Bowl record), the West has been the most competitive division in the NFC by far. The quarterbacks who have won in the NFC are present or future Hall of Famers. Kurt Warner in 1999, Eli Manning in 2007 and 2011, Drew Brees in 2009, Aaron Rodgers in 2010, Russell Wilson in 2013, Tom Brady with the Bucs in 2020 and Matthew Stafford in 2021. The only exceptions were Brad Johnson who won with the Bucs in 2002 with a ferocious defense and Nick Foles and his magical run in 2017 with the Eagles. So why am I writing all this? Because another geographical shift is likely happening in the NFL. The elements are in place for this to develop and it should become noticeable over the next few years. But until then, the AFC and NFC West remain the dominant divisions for at least a few more years.
HERE ARE MY PREDICTIONS FOR THE 2022 NFL SEASON
Buffalo: Division Winner
New York Jets
It is really hard to see Buffalo being stopped this season. Despite losing one of the most heartbreaking playoff games in recent memory, they have managed to shore up some of their obvious weaknesses. Unless injuries ravage this team, they should win the AFC East easily and cruise through the AFC Playoffs.
Miami has been quietly good especially on defense these past few years. Because of slow starts, the Dolphins sabotaged themselves over the past two years despite finishing 10-6 and 9-8. This season, they should have a winning record again. The problem is their offense. Can Tua Tagovailoa play better? Probably, but they also play some incredibly good defenses this year. Look for them to have 9 or 10 wins again and just miss the playoffs…again.
New England will fall back into mediocrity again. With a difficult schedule that never seemed to occur when Brady was quarterback, the Patriots should sit around .500.
The New York Jets will be competitive this year as they begin their rise from the ashes. But this is a team that is looking at being in the playoffs in 2024 and beyond.
Baltimore: Division Winner
Baltimore had a miserable season with injuries and terrible luck as their season came apart in December and January. Expect this to change in 2022. They should win this division easily.
Pittsburgh has a developing upper echelon defense in 2022. Their problem remains at the quarterback position which needs to get resolved now that Roethlisberger has retired.
I love the Cincinnati Bengals. But I can not help but think that the Super Bowl appearance is going to lead to health issues this year. I expect this season to be a wash. But I would not be surprised if they are Super Bowl contenders again in 2023.
Finally, the Cleveland Browns. That is it.
Indianapolis: Division Winner
Tennessee: Wild Card
With Matt Ryan, I expect the Colts to pass the Titans and win the division this year. But the underlying weaknesses on the Colts team will likely lead to an early playoff exit.
Tennessee seems like they will take a step back this year. Can Henry remain healthy? Can Tannehill play better in the clutch? My answer to these questions is NO. I hope they can prove me wrong. I still see them fighting with Miami and the Raiders to slide into that 7th and Final Playoff Seed.
Jacksonville should be much improved. I expect seven to eight wins with this team in 2022.
Houston is in a full rebuild. Come back in 2025 if you want to discuss their future viability. At least Houston has the Astros.
Without a doubt, the best division in the NFL this year. I believe all four teams could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this year.
Denver: Division Winner
Los Angeles Chargers: Wild Card
Kansas City Chiefs: Wild Card
Las Vegas Raiders
I expect every team in the West to finish over .500. I expect the Chargers and Chiefs to dispatch the Ravens and Colts in the playoffs advancing three AFC West teams to the divisional round along with Buffalo. The hard-luck Raiders will miss the playoffs barely losing a likely tiebreaker to Tennessee.
The Denver Broncos with Russell Wilson and that defense will be a completely new team this year. I expect them to surprise and win the division. As a Rams fan, I am uniquely aware of how competitive Seattle was even when the team was mediocre. With a defense like the Broncos have, they will be a tough out in the playoffs.
The Los Angeles Chargers will have one of their best teams of my lifetime. With Herbert maturing, they are going to be a tough team to defeat all season.
The fallback of Kansas City seems inevitable. I fully expect that they will be a Super Bowl caliber team again in a few years. But with the competition in the West and their slow starts, I expect the season to be an uphill battle. But when all 17 games have been played, they will be in the playoff field again.
Finally, the Las Vegas Raiders are going to be the odd man out. This is a good team. But can you argue that they are better than the other three teams in the AFC West?
The worst division in the NFL by far.
Philadelphia Eagles: Division Winner
New York Giants
I am not going to tell you that the Eagles are going to be much improved. I don’t actually believe that. I just think they will benefit from a likely Cowboys meltdown and come out of this division with a 9-8 record.
Dallas is going to waste this season and realize that Mike McCarthy is not the answer. After this tumultuous season, we will revisit Dallas in 2023.
The New York Giants are on the path of rebuilding. I expect them to be more competitive this season. But it will be a long year.
The Washington Commanders with Carson Wentz seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Expect a disappointing season if you are a Washington fan.
Green Bay Packers: Division Winner
Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers remains the class of the NFC North. Until one of their divisional foes proves that they are better, there is no reason to pick against the Packers. If they can fix their special teams, they are a definitive Super Bowl contender.
Minnesota has a talented team that can win this division. But there is no escaping the incredibly average feeling that Kurt Cousins gives to this team. I expect Minnesota can win 10 games and get into the playoffs. But until they prove themselves, I am keeping them out of the playoff field.
I do have a soft spot for Jared Goff. He is only one of six quarterbacks in Rams history to take my team to the Championship game. He is also a flawed quarterback. But the kid can fling it and with Detroit’s talent in a better place this season, they could be the surprise of the NFC.
Chicago seems rudderless. They felt like a team with no motivation last season. Until this changes and they get some decent quarterback play, I expect them to bring up the rear in the North.
The most improved division in the NFC this year (Atlanta Falcons excluded).
New Orleans Saints: Division Winner
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Wild Card
The Saints have a fantastic team. The defense is top notch, and the offensive talent is great. The problem revolves around Jameis Winston and his health. I expect him to have a good season. A good season by a Saints quarterback usually leads to a division title.
Tampa Bay has Tom Brady. Even though the talent does feel like it has slipped since their Super Bowl winning season in 2020, expect Brady and the above average defense to get into the NFC playoffs again.
Carolina could be a wild card team this year. They could also win 4 games. It all depends on the quarterback play of Baker Mayfield. This will be an exciting team no matter the outcome.
Atlanta is going to be bad. That is all.
The best NFL division of the last 24 seasons. It will be very good again.
Los Angeles Rams: Division Winner
San Francisco 49ers: Wild Card
Arizona Cardinals: Wild Card
The Rams are the champs. Other than injuries plaguing this team, they should have no problem winning 12 to 13 games again. The talent level has only increased since the Super Bowl winning team from last year. The Rams can definitely repeat if they remain healthy and motivated.
San Francisco is a scary team. With a team that may have the most talent in the entire NFL, the 49ers success is going to be directly tied to Trey Lance. If he proves that he is an elite quarterback in the Patrick Mahomes mold, this could be a 15-win team that will run away with the NFC. Until that question is answered though, they still have enough to easily qualify as a wild card this season.
Arizona is an interesting dichotomy. Again, the talent on this team is incredible. Now that Kyler Murray has signed a huge contract, can they take the next step? This is another wait and see question. I can see the Cardinals being NFC Champions. I can also see a team that slides to a losing record. I choose to pick the middle. They will get into the playoffs again as a wild card.
Finally, the Seattle Seahawks. With the Russell Wilson trade, this is a team that is beginning its offensive rebuild. But they are not too far away from competing for a playoff spot again.
Feel free to strike back with your own predictions. I hope everyone enjoys the 2022 season. Go Rams!
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