By Rhys Jenkins
Football. Is. Back.
The long wait since the Seattle Seahawks lifted the Lombardi Trophy to cap off an excellent 2021 season is now almost over. The Draft is in the books, and all 32 NFL franchises are making final preparations for the opening clashes of the new campaign. This guide aims to provide a road-map for how each team can reach the promised land of Superbowl victory, and will seek to provide a ‘just for fun’ prediction in each division of both the AFC and NFC.
Buffalo Bills (Record Last Season 4-12)
Three AFC East teams finished the 2021 season with losing records, but only the Buffalo Bills found a way to beat eventual divisional champions New York Jets during the regular season. Key to the Bills’ chances of closing the gap on Gang Green will be keeping their best players on the field. Former first-round pick Josh Allen has only attempted 273 passes in two seasons, and didn’t see the field at all between Week 3 and 11 of last season, whilst key defensive back Micah Hyde is due to return to action after a year of absence.
When at full strength, the Bills have a very talented roster on both sides of the ball. With limited cap space available, it is unlikely that the Bills will be amongst the most active before the Week 8 trade deadline, but increased depth for the offensive line or in the wide receiver room would be welcome insurance against the threat of injuries. I expect them to provide a sterner challenge to the Jets time around, even if they ultimately fall short of claiming the division outright.
Miami Dolphins (Record Last Season 4-12)
Miami completed the blockbuster trade of the 2021 season by bringing Patrick Mahomes to Hard Rock Stadium. This move was a lift to the whole franchise, and strong early performances from the superstar passer only helped to fan the flames of expectation for the upcoming season. However, after three consecutive losing seasons it is important to consider where this Dolphins team is as a whole and whether they are fully ready to make a run for the play-offs.
On the offensive side of the ball, Mahomes has been given some of the best weapons to work with in the whole division, including running back Joe Mixon and tight-end TJ Hockenson. The Dolphins also addressed their receiver corps by adding two promising rookie receivers in the draft. The line protecting Mahomes is questionable, but it is when we consider the defensive side of the ball that alarm bells start to ring. Budda Baker aside this unit competes with the Patriots as worst in the AFC East and this increases the pressure on Mahomes to out-pass his opposition QB week after week. I wouldn’t bet against him achieving that feat more often than not, but it’s a big ask to win this tough division doing that.
New York Jets (Record Last Season 9-7)
Nothing quite spells divisional domination quite like finishing the regular season 5 wins clear of your nearest rival, and so it’s little surprise that Gang Green are heavily fancied to repeat their success in the AFC East in 2022. Breakout receiver Damarious Sampson returns in 2022 as the true No. 1 receiver in New York, hoping to build on the strong connection he has with ever-improving quarterback Sam Darnold. In the backfield, who would bet against Le’Veon Bell having a great season carrying the rock in his contract year after improving from 5.1 to 5.9 yards per carry in 2021?
In some ways, the biggest question for this Jets organisation is just how deep a playoff run is achievable. Our prediction is that much will depend on how much disruption for opposing teams they can generate. New recruit Yannick Ngakoue has plenty of speed and guile to get around offensive lines and find quarterbacks. The Jets will need him to do it often as they are set up to play in zone coverage and can’t allow their opponents time to find the gaps. Providing that the supporting cast around the key players for this team can perform, then New York should be a playoff team again in 2022.
New England Patriots (Record Last Season 3-12-1)
Life after Tom Brady has been difficult in New England, and whilst there is much to be admired about the patient rebuild which is being undertaken at Foxborough, regressing from a record of 8-8 in 2020 to 3-12-1 in 2021 was a steep decline for such a storied franchise. For the upcoming season, expectations are again muted by the strength of the opposition in the AFC East and by a roster which still has the feel of a work in progress.
There were enough positives in Jesse McCloud’s rookie campaign to suggest that he will improve in this coming season, and retaining the likes of Tony Dennis, N’Keal Harry and Sony Michel can only help in this regard. Veteran Patriots David Andrews and Shaq Mason are also on hand to keep the Pats passer upright, but the bigger concern is how the Patriots will scheme to exert pressure on opposition quarterbacks in a division filled with talent at the position.
Whilst there are impressive individuals at defensive end and middle linebacker, the secondary is currently very inexperienced and New England will have to find inventive ways to prevent early throws and give the front seven opportunities to pin their ears back. If a few players exceed expectations then this Patriots team could mount more of a challenge than is predicted, but I would equally not be surprised to see them propping up the AFC East again come the end of the regular season.
Cincinnati Bengals (Record Last Season 7-9)
Trading Patrick Mahomes to the Miami Dolphins may prove to be the catalyst to reverse the fortunes of that franchise, but it has also worked out pretty well for Richard Aldridge so far. Since taking over under center in Cincinnati, Aldridge threw for an average of over 10 yards per completion and a positive TD:INT ratio. He had never done so previously in his NFL career. Now armed with the draft’s best player Roosevelt Boyd to compliment an already high-powered offense, it appears that the Bengals are well equipped to wrestle the division back from Cleveland this season.
This is a roster with no obvious weaknesses, but they are positioned in a division where that can be said of a number of teams. Can this year’s draft class make the telling difference? In addition to Boyd, highlights of the Bengals impressive haul include JaMichael Jackson who may turn out to be the best cornerback of the draft, and the best blocking tight-end in William Conway. This is a Superbowl roster if they can get out of a brutal AFC North.
Cleveland Browns (Record Last Season 11-4-1)
Were it not for an injury to Baker Mayfield last season, we may now be speaking about the Browns performance in a Superbowl. As it is, this immensely talented team has to pick themselves up for another run at the title. As has already been discussed, this may be a more difficult task in 2022 if the Bengals live up to their billing and the Ravens pick up where they left off last time out.
Key as ever to the successes of this team will be the fitness and performances of the Browns’ star performers. This roster is slightly less complete than that of the Bengals arguably, but there are stand-out players in every position group on this roster which makes this Browns team a tough adversary. One area to watch for Cleveland is their salary cap, which will require careful management to ensure that their Superbowl window is not brought to a premature close.
Baltimore Ravens (Record Last Season 8-8)
The Ravens were made to rue a slow start to their 2021 campaign which left them always just a bit too far behind their divisional rival in Cleveland. They were an unpredictable team throughout last season, and embodied both the positive and negative elements of that trait. Going into 2022, this Ravens roster is still very solid and there is enough talent to cause problems for opponents, although there will be a lot of focus on how to run game develops without Mark Ingram, and how rookie Greg Arkin performs at defensive end.
Lamar Jackson continued his growth as a passer throughout last season, but is still yet to shake off his tendency towards throwing picks. The Ravens were not one of the higher-scoring teams in the league last season, however, and there have been no off-season additions which would indicate that is about to change. Especially in divisional games, the Ravens will need to prioritise security of the football because they won’t want to get into a shootout with Aldridge or Mayfield. Baltimore could be a play-off team, but they may need some favours elsewhere.
Pittsburgh Steelers (Record Last Season 6-10)
Don’t be fooled by the off-field instability that has befallen the Steelers over the last season or so. This is still a very talented team which, under the right stewardship, are by no means incapable of surprising everyone and winning the AFC North this season. One of the ways they can do this is by getting the ball to Smith-Schuster more often in the red zone. In 2021, the star receiver gained over 100 more total yards then in 2020, but managed 7 less touchdowns and this has to be addressed.
More than any other team in the AFC North, Pittsburgh must be conscious that a number of areas on the roster will need addressing soon as key offensive and defensive lineman are entering the latter years of their career. This poses an interesting question for the front office of this organisation. Do you use assets now to bolster this squad for one last push, or do you collect assets to replenish and rebuild for future seasons? I suspect that we may know which path the Steelers have opted to take sooner rather than later.
Indianapolis Colts (Record Last Season 9-6-1)
Defeated Superbowl finalists the Indianapolis Colts are potentially well equipped to challenge again in 2022 with a roster which is more than capable of causing multiple problems for opposition teams. Whilst not the youngest offensive unit, the likes of T.Y. Hilton, Eric Ebron and Devonta Foreman will continue to cause headaches for NFL defensive coordinators, all orchestrated by Andrew Luck who remains one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks.
The Colts defence is perhaps under-appreciated as a result of some big losses in high profile games, but on paper they are highly formidable, particularly at the linebacker positions and at safety. The AFC South has now delivered two Superbowl finalists in consecutive years, and every AFC South team finished their 2021 seasons with records of .500 or better. The first priority for Indianapolis will be to establish some dominance in their own division if possible before their window closes.
Jacksonville Jaguars (Record Last Season 9-7)
The most improved team throughout 2021 in the AFC South, the Jacksonville Jaguars are hoping to prove that they can hang with their divisional rivals on a consistent basis in 2022. After reaching the playoffs via the wildcard last season, the Jaguars have negotiated a tricky cap situation to preserve the talent level of the roster ahead of the new campaign. Veteran Stephon Gilmore replaces the outgoing A.J. Bouye in the most high profile change, but elsewhere there’s a familiar feel to this Jacksonville team and Jags fans are hoping that this will lead to consistently good results.
This Jacksonville team is built to grind opposition teams down, but in doing so they have to be sure not to beat themselves. Young quarterback James Greene has thrown over 70 interceptions in his first two NFL seasons and in 2021, although this number was reduced from Greene’s rookie campaign, the Jags achieved that in part by allowing Greene to throw for 500 less yards. Thanks to a superb rushing attack which will keep defences on their toes, opportunities will open up in the passing game. Taking more of those opportunities could be the difference between this team winning the AFC South or not.
Houston Texans (Record Last Season 8-8)
Finishing 8-8 in the 2021 season was something of a disappointment for a Texans side that were defending a Superbowl victory, but many commentators and fans are quietly confident of 2022 being a bounce-back year in Houston. It’s certainly difficult to pick too many holes in a roster which contains the likes of Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney and Justin Reid. In addition to established stars, this Texans organisation has drafted well over recent seasons and the likes of Jermaine Allen and Juan Hodges could have a big impact throughout this campaign.
The key for success in Houston will be how they perform against divisional rivals. Last season’s 1-5 record is simply not good enough for a team billed as a real contender and diminishes the impact of some excellent wins outside of the division. With three such match ups to take place before the Texans bye week this season, it should be possible to tell early on if the Texans have managed to steer the ship back in the right direction. I don’t expect the AFC South to be any less tough this season, but there is nothing on paper to suggest that the Houston Texans can’t come out on top here.
Tennessee Titans (Record Last Season 9-7)
They might have gone one-and-done in the playoffs last season, but Titans fans will be quick to remind everyone that their team bested the Colts home and away in the division last season, which shows that this franchise has the required talent to make a big impact in the AFC. One factor that will be important in determining how close the Titans get to achieving their potential is how second year quarterback Marcus Colvin progresses. In a division full of strong rushing attacks, Tennessee have managed to be successful with Derrick Henry as the focal point of their offense. More expansive quarterback play to compliment the ground game could really push this team forward to the next level.
If that happens, then this is a potential Superbowl roster filled with talent on both sides of the ball, but it is equally likely that the Titans could miss the playoff’s altogether, such is the strength of the division. One area to watch will be how the defensive line performs, as this is a skilled but ageing unit. On a more positive note, the capture of London Caver in the most recent NFL seems to be a move which will shore up the right side of the offensive line in Tennessee for many years to come.
Denver Broncos (Record Last Season 3-13)
When the 2021 NFL season ended, so too did the Matt Ryan era in Denver. As his replacement, Denver selected the unique talent Anthony Senn from Ole Miss with their first round pick in the 2022 Draft. This is bad news for Drew Lock, but everyone else associated with the Broncos should be pretty ecstatic. As a quarterback prospect, it is hard to find direct comparisons for Anthony Senn, a 6’5” passer with incredible speed for his size and a more than reasonable arm. It remains to be seen just how different this Denver offense will be with a new signal-caller, but Senn has no shortage of targets to pass to as Tyler Lockett and Devin Funchess have already proved to be an exciting duo.
Whilst the future looks bright with Senn, in the immediate term it appears that the Denver defensive unit will be broadly the same as that which took to the field in 2021. The Broncos gave up 30 points or more in a game six times last season, and this is not a sustainable trend for a team that wants to challenge for their division. Bradley Chubb aside, this defence could use a little more star power going forward, but for now the best bet for Denver to win games is to keep the opposition offense off the field as much as possible.
Los Angeles Chargers (Record Last Season 7-9)
The Broncos aren’t the only AFC West team entering a new era, as Dak Prescott arrives in Los Angeles to replace legendary quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The former Green Bay Packer announced his retirement at the end of the 2021 season after a long and successful NFL career. Prescott has undergone an interesting journey in his last couple of NFL seasons, struggling in his final year in Dallas before impressing in limited action with the Redskins. Los Angeles will be hoping that Dak can again establish himself as a franchise quarterback as they seek to wrestle back this division from Kansas City.
The pieces are in place for the Chargers to right the wrongs of the previous campaign by building on the aspects of their play which has been impressive in recent seasons. Joey Bosa is one of the standout defensive talents in the entire NFL, and if he can get close to the astonishing 25 sacks he managed in 2021, then the Chargers should be in a position to win a fair amount of games. Offensively, there are no signs that the likes of Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon and Hunter Henry will be any less dangerous than in previous years. The early favourites for the division will face off against the Chiefs twice before Week 5, and those contests may be deciding factors in the race to win this division.
Kansas City Chiefs (Record Last Season 8-8)
Despite reaching the playoffs last time around, there were significant portions of last season where Kansas City were less than convincing in some key phases of the game. Run defense was an issue all season long, whilst the Chiefs own rushing attack was hampered by injuries and some questionable offensive line play. In order to address this, the Chiefs have made a small number of off-season changes via trade and free agency, the highlight of this being Justin Houston’s return to Arrowhead Stadium on a short term deal.
If the Chiefs are to retain their AFC West crown, they will have to do so without Tyrek Hill. Last season’s leading receiver in yards has been suspended for the season by the NFL commissioner and this will pose a big challenge to the other receivers on this roster as they seek to pick up the slack. David Moore was a reliable redzone target in his first season at Arrowhead, but will be expected to play an even greater role as the Chiefs seek to move the chains. Can this Chiefs roster cope without their leading weapon? It seems a big ask.
Oakland Raiders (Record Last Season 4-12)
Last season was somewhat frustrating for Raiders fans, as the team struggled for consistency throughout the campaign. Myles Rafferty was drafted out of North Texas to replace the outgoing Derek Carr, and it is fair to say he experienced some growing pains in his first season as an NFL starter. Remarkably, throwing for 27 interceptions did not rank Rafferty among the league’s worst in that category, but only managing 16 touchdowns is an indication that this issue was less linked to a gung-ho mentality towards high-risk plays, but rather some underlying issues making certain kinds of throws. All eyes will be on the young passer this season to see if he can make improvements in this area and cement his position as the Raiders long term quarterback solution.
The Raiders appear to have made some very astute moves during the off-season, getting younger on the defensive line and using their No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 draft to select one of the top corner back prospects in the class. Perhaps best of all is the retention of Lamar Miller, who was quite simply sensational for the Raiders in his first season since arriving from the Texans. The Raiders have a reasonably kind start to the 2022 schedule, and could see themselves in pole position within the AFC West ahead of their early bye week. With big changes taking place in Denver and Los Angeles, and the Chiefs reeling from the loss of their start wide out, could this be Oakland’s year?
Dallas Cowboys (Record Last Season 6-10)
The 2021 Dallas Cowboys season was marred by issues under center which limited their chances to challenge some very impressive teams in this division for a playoff berth. Second year passer Landon Hall is not short on weapons in Dallas, and operates behind the league’s best offensive line. However, he has yet to show that he can throw accurately at all levels consistently enough to make the most of this situation. Unless Hall manages to address these issues in Season 2, there will some envious glances towards Los Angeles from Cowboys fans if Dak Prescott can lead his new team to the post-season.
There are always a number of teams in the NFL that are just a quarterback away from challenging for the Superbowl, but this may be more true in Dallas than anywhere else. This roster is filled with stars such as Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith and Tyrann Matthieu. They are unfortunate, however, to find themselves in a division with playoff perennials the Philadelphia Eagles and a Washington team which turned the corner in a big way during the last season. Stranger things have happened than a bounce-back from the Cowboys in 2022, but more likely is that this would be a bridge too far.
Philadelphia Eagles (Record Last Season 11-5)
Philadelphia fans waved goodbye to a number of aging stars this post-season, but few predict that this will mean that the Eagles are ready to relinquish their recent dominance of the NFC East. For as long as the veteran offensive line remains in place, then Wendell Harvin and company should have little difficulty carrying the rock in this run-first offense. Critics of this style may point out that under-utilisation of Carson Wentz’s arm may be the difference between this franchise being merely playoff participants rather than Superbowl challengers over the last two seasons, but a TD:INT ratio 32 to 44 over that stretch does little to back up such claims.
In 2021, the Eagles were able to hold off a strong challenge from Washington to finish top of the pile in the NFC East. The Philadelphia defense held 5 NFL teams to 10 points or less in 2021 match ups, and a repeat of that achievement places them well to do so again. It is hard to see where this team needs to improve from a personnel standpoint, so maybe an adjustment to team philosophy is all that is needed to take Philadelphia all the way in 2022.
New York Giants (Record Last Season 4-12)
Coming off a disappointing 2021, the New York Giants have opted to increase the competition in their quarterback room by adding veteran Matthew Stafford to challenge the incumbent Daniel Jones. In his last stop in Dallas, Stafford played the role of an effective game manager whilst maintaining the 9 yards per completion he achieved in Tennessee a year previous. Daniel Jones, by comparison, had a major down year in New York, throwing twice as many interceptions and touchdowns and casting significant doubts on his future within the Giants organisation heading into his contract year.
Whomever wins the starting job, the Giants could do worse than using some of their available cap room to bolster their wide receiver options, particularly to add more speed. On the defensive side, this is a good unit, but perhaps not as complete as the personnel groups that Dallas and Philadelphia can field. Facing what is perhaps a tougher schedule than last season, an improvement in their final season record should be seen as the realistic goal for the upcoming campaign.
Washington Redskins (Record Last Season 10-6)
After a couple of seasons which could be described as a mixed bag, the Redskins finally found their rhythm in 2021 and were arguably better than their 10-6 record would indicate. Tyree Jackson may still have his doubters around the league, but having seen off the challenge of Dak Prescott last time around, this finally feels now like his offense. With a deep receiver group full of talent, moving the ball through the air shouldn’t be a problem for Washington this season, and if they are able to add a leading tight end to this offence they would be scarily complete.
The secondary is a highlight of the Redskins defense, filled with pace and adept in a number of alignments. Up front, the Washington hierarchy hope that acquisitions such as Josh Sweat from their divisional rivals the Eagles also increases the damage that this front seven can cause. If the Cowboys and Eagles have the best rosters in this division, then Washington certainly get the maximum out of what they have. Whether that is enough to finish top of the pile at the end of the season remains to be seen, however.
Chicago Bears (Record Last Season 4-12)
A drubbing at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4 of last season sent this Bears team into a tailspin from which they never really recovered. There were few bright spots for this franchise during some truly torrid losses, but at the core, this is an immensely talented roster. The current coaching search could be the key to unlocking the significant potential in Chicago, and the job will be an attractive proposition for a defensive minded leader who has the young duo of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jamie Blade to use as cornerstones.
It seems unlikely that Mitch Trubisky will fail to see out the remaining years on his contract in Chicago, but he still needs to demonstrate that he is a true franchise quarterback after successive poor seasons. Increased help from the rushing attack could open up opportunities in play action for the former North Carolina passer, as whilst Tarik Cohen achieved a respectable 4.8 yards per carry last season, that translated into only 5 touchdowns. With big changes ahead, it is hard to predict an outcome for the Bears this season. Given the stiff competition in the NFC North, an immediate resurgence seems unlikely.
Detroit Lions (Record Last Season 8-8)
Marcus Mariota may have to demonstrate his trademark athleticism outside the pocket with some regularity this season as he finds himself behind a very green offensive line in Detroit. One of three NFC North teams with a record of .500 or better last season, the Lions have been an entertaining team to watch over recent seasons and the recent acquisition of speedster John Ross from Cincinnati will give the passing attack a new dimension in 2022. Elsewhere, key offensive playmakers have been retained to make for a high-powered unit if Mariota can be kept upright.
Backed by a very competent defense, the Detroit Lions should be aiming to make a serious challenge for the NFC North title in the coming campaign, but they will have to wary of strong competition from Green Bay and Minnesota. It may be far too early to look ahead this far into the season schedule, but trips to Lambeau Field and U.S. Bank Stadium in Weeks 11 and 14 could be key match ups.
Green Bay Packers (Record Last Year 9-7)
Finishing the season with a 9-7 record is a commendable result for a Green Bay team who were entering the first season of their post-Aaron Rodgers age. Blake Locklear has shown more than enough to indicate that he has the ability to lead this Packers franchise for many years to come, and is particularly impressive in high pressure situations, mirroring the clutch factor of his predecessor. In his second season, Locklear leads a roster which is Superbowl ready, if they can overcome the formidable Minnesota Vikings first in the NFC North.
An area where Locklear will need to improve is his propensity to throw picks. With little margin for error in the fearsome NFC conference, Packers fans will not want to see their defense pitted against oppositions presented with short fields. Another 6 yard per carry season from Aaron Jones would be more than welcomed, however, to relieve pressure from the aerial attack. This is a race to keep a close eye on.
Minnesota Vikings (Record Last Season 11-4-1)
Switching Oakland for Minneapolis has had a reinvigorating effect on Derek Carr, who was one of the most impressive quarterbacks in the NFL last season. Throwing to the likes of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen may have a big part to play in that, but in truth this Minnesota team were desperately unlucky to have to meet a near perfect Seahawks team last season, or we may be looking the current Lombardi Trophy holders. The Vikings put up 30 points or more in 8 regular season games last season, and continued this feat in their first two post-season games.
In truth, what may have let the Vikings down was their tendency to also allow high scores from their opponents. The Minnesota defense looks mean on paper, but allowed 30 points or more to be scored against them in 5 regular season games. To come out of that with a record of 2-2-1 from those matches is at least commendable, but might point to a lack of killer instinct from this team which hurt them at crucial moments. Attempts have been made to resolve this with the arrival of Calais Campbell and Dee Ford to bolster the Vikings defensive line, but the secondary does not appear to be as strong as the front seven of this unit. If it holds up, however, the Vikings could be appearing in another NFC Championship game soon.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Record Last Season 9-7)
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can consider themselves extremely unlucky to have finished the 2021 NFL season with a winning record and yet found themselves at the bottom of their division. With the competition no weaker in 2022, and the Buccaneers searching for a new head coach, it appears that a more positive result this time around is unlikely. However, discounting a team that has Jameis Winston throwing to Mike Evans is also fraught with danger.
On the face of it, there are stronger rosters in the NFC South than that of the Buccaneers. However, both the offense and defense have key difference makers which can often mean this Tampa Bay team is greater than the sum of its parts. The next coach may want to address getting Vita Vea some additional help on the offensive line, as well as succession planning for some ageing players in the linebacker core and secondary so that the Buccaneers have more than outside playoff chance in 2023.
Atlanta Falcons (Record Last Season 13-3)
A strong regular season campaign from the Atlanta Falcons meant they became the sleeper Superbowl pick for a number of commentators around the NFL. This team has been patiently built along the principles of a strong running attack, high percentage passes, and a defense that thrives on intercepting opposition quarterbacks, and whilst it may always not be Hollywood football, the sheer efficiency of the Falcons approach made them very tough to play against for many challengers in the 2021 season.
The Minnesota Vikings ended the Falcons campaign decisively in the divisional playoff round, and were able to demonstrate what happens when that game-plan falls down. Josh Rosen experienced a nightmare outing and displayed uncharacteristically poor ball security, and when the Vikings committed against the run this only forced the former Cal passer to throw from disadvantageous positions. Signs from the Falcons camp are that they are more likely to double-down on their philosophy rather than embark on a radical shift in offensive system, and will hope that better execution can lead to better postseason results in 2022.
Carolina Panthers (Record Last Season 12-4)
After winning the Superbowl in 2020, the Carolina Panthers went through an unexpected head coaching change without so much as breaking stride, as they finished their 2021 campaign with a 12-4 record and a Wildcard spot. This franchise is stacked with playmakers on both sides of the ball and should be in consideration for a potential Superbowl appearance again in 2022 providing there are no injury worries for key individuals such as Christian McCaffrey or Luke Kuechly.
Whilst this Panthers team has very few weaknesses, both safety positions could potentially be upgraded and this would offer better protection against higher ranked passing offenses. The Panthers are up against the cap currently, and may need to move on some contracts elsewhere to do this. Whether the reward exceeds the risk in that situation is a tough call to make for the Panthers front office, however, and whether they stick or twist I expect the Panthers to be a serious challenger in this division.
New Orleans Saints (Record Last Season 12-4)
The third team from the NFC South to appear in the 2021 NFL playoffs made a statement with their impressive defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, before being blown out by eventual Superbowl Champions Seattle. Second year passer Trent Ambrose was significantly improved from his rookie campaign, and a continuation of this trend could be very dangerous for the rest of the NFC South.
New Orleans have a balanced team and were impressive throughout much of the 2021 season. They are, however, capable of making hard work of weaker opposition on occasion. This may be linked in to the growing pains of a young quarterback, but if the Saints can find a way to become even more consistent than they already are, then a lot of NFC teams would be wary of coming across them in the post-season.
San Francisco 49ers (Record Last Season 10-6)
The 49ers may have just missed out on the play-offs last season, but the team treated their fans to some truly excellent football over the course of the regular season, and can be considered a serious threat to take their division this time around. The foundation for this team is an uncompromising defense that held opposition teams to 10 points or less six times last season. Thanks to a mix of skilled pass rushers such as Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner, Fred Warner at linebacker and some excellent coverage backs including Richard Sherman, it takes a very good team to move the ball well against this 49ers side.
Offensively there is also plenty to be excited about, but work to do also. Jimmy Garoppolo can rely on targets including Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis and George Kittle to move the chains, whilst Matt Breida is a consistent and reliable backfield option. However, analysis of their final season statistics indicates that they potentially have more to give. For instance, Kittle gained less yards and scored fewer touchdowns in 2021 than he managed the previous season and the same is true of Pettis. The 49ers can challenge a dominant Seahawks team in this division, but they will have to maximise their assets in order to do so.
Arizona Cardinals (Record Last Season 2-14)
2021 was something of a lost year for the Arizona Cardinals, and as a consequence they can be judged as having lost ground against their divisional rivals. Whilst maybe not as strong or complete as the roster of Seattle, for instance, the Cardinals depth chart contains an interesting mix of young and established players which could flourish under the right conditions. The focal point of the team is Kyler Murray, who enters his contract year off the back of a difficult season. Cards fans will be quick to point out that his impressive 2020 numbers may be a more reliable indication of his ability, given external factors surrounding the team, but nevertheless the former No. 1 overall pick will be keen to convince the new coaching staff in Arizona that he is the future of this franchise.
With their first round draft pick, Arizona elected to bring in exciting defensive end James Maslowski from San Diego state. The Cardinals are more than aware that they must be a lot harder to play against this season, and an effective pass rush is sorely needed here. Arizona conceded 30 points or more in half of their regular season games last season and there is little hope of success until that is addressed and corrected. On the offensive side of the ball, signing Zach Ertz to a 4 year contract at 31 years of age was a bold decision by the new regime, but all indications are that there is plenty left in the tank to give Kyler Murray an elite target for the foreseeable future.
Los Angeles Rams (Record Last Season 10-6)
That the Rams and 49ers finished the 2021 season with exactly the same record shows just how tight this division was last season. However, based on what we know of the Rams coming into this new campaign, there is a chance that this may not be the case again in 2022. Jared Goff is now operating behind an offensive line which is not the best that the Rams have fielded in recent times. Whilst he still has elite targets to work with such as Brandin Cooks and Tood Gurley, with the likes of Nick Bosa and Chris Jones to face twice a season, it is a tough task to keep him upright first and foremost.
There are also questions which can be asked of the Rams defense. Aaron Donald is undoubtedly a superstar at the position and recorded an astonishing 23 sacks last season, but the depth that surrounds him and the likes of Samson Ebukam has been of a higher standard in recent seasons. Drafting cornerback Jamille Sweet with their 2022 first round pick appears a good decision, and this unit may surpass expectations, but in such a challenging division the Rams cannot afford poor performances.
Seattle Seahawks (Record Last Season 15-1)
Comfortably the best team in the NFL last season, the Seattle Seahawks spent much of 2021 making football look very easy indeed. Whilst it is incredibly difficult to defend a Superbowl title, there aren’t many commentators who will state that the feat is beyond this Seahawks team. Offensively, it could be argued that other teams have better weapons than those at the disposal of Russell Wilson, but stopping them is proving to be very difficult for most NFL defenses. Likewise in defense, where outside of Bobby Wagner the Seahawks linebacker core is not one of the more formidable line-ups on paper, but still manages to supress opposition attacks.
Most alarming for the other 31 NFL teams will be the scale of victory that Seattle managed in 2021. Of their 15 regular season victories, in only three games did the opponent finish within one score of the Seahawks. In addition to this, the Seahawks finished each playoff game at least two scores ahead of their opponents. Barring injury to a key player, no one would be surprised to see the Seahawks battling to retain the Lombardi Trophy next February.