The preseason is over, and Week 1 is rapidly approaching. That means it’s time to go on the record with predictions for the 2022 NFL season. Once January rolls around, many of these will look like freezing cold takes. If they’re especially embarrassing, I will ask my editors to scrub this column from the internet. But for now, it’s time to let it rip.
1. The Buffalo Bills win the Super Bowl
Josh Allen showed during last year’s playoffs that he’s capable of playing nearly perfect football and putting the entire team on his back. In two games against the Patriots and Chiefs, Allen completed 77 percent of his passes, averaged 10.3 yards per attempt, and threw nine touchdowns without an interception. He also ran for 134 yards and averaged 7.9 yards per carry. How many quarterbacks are really capable of playing at that level? Maybe five? Allen is 26 years old, has the pieces around him to thrive, and should just now be entering his prime. Meanwhile, the Bills added Von Miller to an already impressive defense and have one of the deepest pass-rush groups in the league.
This isn’t to say that Buffalo is a flawless contender. Ken Dorsey is a first-time play-caller and could be more conservative than Brian Daboll was, and the Bills have some questions on the right side of their offensive line. Defensively, corner is a concern as Tre’Davious White will miss at least the first four games. From a coaching standpoint, it’s hard to get over the disastrous final 13 seconds of regulation in their divisional-round loss to the Chiefs.
Having said all that, the Bills were unlucky last year. They were 0-6 in one-score games (playoffs included). If you played out last season 100 times, they would probably win the Super Bowl as many times as any other team. Their division isn’t overly daunting, their schedule projects to be middle of the pack in terms of difficulty, and they should be hungry after the way last season ended.
The AFC is loaded, but Buffalo looks like a 12- or 13-win team to me. They earn the top seed, get the bye, and finish the job this time around.
2. Micah Parsons wins Defensive Player of the Year
Parsons was one of 17 players who reached double-digit sacks in the regular season last year. On average, those players had 452 opportunities to rush the passer. Parsons? He had just 286! That was 74 fewer than any other player who produced double-digit sacks.
If we look at sack percentage, only T.J. Watt and Robert Quinn were better. If we look at Pro Football Focus’s pressure percentage, Parsons was easily first at 22.4 percent. No other player was above 16.6 percent.
Bottom line: Parsons was a monster when he rushed the passer last year. He should get more opportunities to do it this year. A season in which he leads the NFL in sacks, forced fumbles, and tackles for loss is in play.
3. Justin Herbert wins MVP
One of the worst takes you can possibly have right now is: Can Justin Herbert win a playoff game before we crown him?
The Chargers’ failure to make the playoffs last year had nothing to do with Herbert. They ranked 25th in defensive DVOA and 27th in special teams DVOA. The offense was not the problem. Herbert passes every relevant QB measure and is destined for greatness. The film grinders drool over him. The analytics crowd loves him. His teammates and peers respect him. Any reasonable observer who watches him recognizes something special.
Herbert threw for over 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2021; only he and Tom Brady hit those benchmarks last season. Players who have produced those numbers in the Super Bowl era (granted, Herbert had a 17th game): Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Patrick Mahomes, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, and Brady. This is the company we’re talking about. Oh, and did I mention Herbert is just 24 years old?
Right tackle is a question, but the rest of the Chargers’ offensive line is in good shape. Herbert has continuity with his supporting cast in Mike Williams, Keenan Allen, and Austin Ekeler. Twelve wins, first place in the AFC West (bonus bold prediction here!), and an MVP. It will be a special season for Herbert.
4. The Philadelphia Eagles win the NFC East
I am usually lower than consensus on the Eagles. Not this year. There are just too many things working in their favor.
One, the Eagles have the second-easiest schedule in the NFL, according to projected win totals from the betting markets. Two, they have one of the best rosters in the NFL. Three, their final point differential was skewed by a 25-point loss in Week 18 when the Eagles rested their starters, and they were 2-4 in one-score games. This easily could’ve been a 10- or 11-win team last year.
Jalen Hurts was a middle-of-the-pack starter last year, but he’s well-positioned to improve in 2022. The Eagles have one of the best and deepest offensive lines in the NFL. They added A.J. Brown to a pass-catching group that already included DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert. If Hurts has a higher ceiling to reach, this should be the year we see it.
Last year, the Eagles beat up on bad teams and looked outmanned against good ones. Given their schedule, a similar formula with modest improvement from Hurts should lead to an uptick in victories. I see an 11-win team, which should be good enough to take the division.
5. The Minnesota Vikings win the NFC North
This is the one most likely to get me dunked on by a vocal contingent of Green Bay Packers fans. Just know that, if necessary, I won’t be afraid to argue my evil twin Neil was responsible for this section.
For the first time in a while, the Vikings will have a head coach, in Kevin O’Connell, who doesn’t hate his quarterback or his offense. That’s got to count for something! The cupboard is not bare in Minnesota. Kirk Cousins is surrounded by Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook. The offensive line is a question, but the Vikings are talented enough to put out a competent pass-protecting unit.
Defensively, I really like this front seven. Edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith got through the summer healthy. They’re complemented by interior linemen Dalvin Tomlinson and Harrison Phillips, along with veteran linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks. The secondary is a mix of young players and veterans, but the Vikings should be able to lean on two-high coverages and avoid putting their corners on an island.
I’ve flip-flopped on this one about a thousand times, but hey, the prediction game is not for the timid. Eleven wins and a one-game edge over the second-place Packers!
I already hate myself for this.
6. The Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears pick one-two (in some order) in the 2023 draft
Both rosters are in terrible shape.
Bears fans go into the season with some optimism after Justin Fields went 14-of-16 in Chicago’s preseason finale. But this team could easily have a bottom-five offensive line, a bottom-five pass-catching group, and a bottom-five defense. Maybe Fields will show that he can lift up the pieces around him. Or maybe new head coach Matt Eberflus will show that he can do more with less on defense. But those don’t seem like the most likely outcomes. I’ve got the Bears as a four-win team.
For the Falcons, it’s a similar story. The offensive line and skill group (aside from tight end Kyle Pitts) are questions. So is quarterback, where they’ll roll with Marcus Mariota and/or rookie Desmond Ridder. They had a bottom-three defense last year, and it’s hard to come up with a reason they’d be significantly improved. The Falcons were incredibly lucky last year. They had the NFL’s third-best injury luck, started Matt Ryan for 17 games, and were 6-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. With even just league-average luck when it comes to injuries and results in close games, this year could get really, really ugly.
If you want to argue that the Jets and Texans belong here, I won’t fight you. But I’ll take the Bears and Falcons as the two worst teams in 2022.
7. Carson Wentz is one-and-done in Washington
First, let’s start with why I might be wrong here. One, Wentz has finished in the top half of the league in QBR four times in the past five seasons. Two, the Commanders offense finished 21st in DVOA last season with Taylor Heinicke at quarterback. So maybe the floor with Wentz isn’t that low.
So why am I predicting disaster? Reports out of Commanders training camp suggested that Wentz’s long-standing issues—specifically his erratic accuracy—continue to be a problem. This has been the story with Wentz—he’s never shown an ability to cure his fatal flaws.
Former Eagles coach Doug Pederson knew Wentz’s strengths and weaknesses well. That relationship ended in disaster in 2020. Frank Reich stuck his neck out for Wentz in 2021. After one season, the Colts were done with him.
If you think Wentz will succeed in Washington, you have to believe one of the following three things:
- The coaching staff will prop him up higher than the Eagles’ or Colts’ could
- His supporting cast will be significantly better than it was in Philadelphia or Indianapolis
- Wentz will individually improve his glaring areas of weakness
Maybe one of those things will happen, but none of them seem likely. Wentz has no guaranteed money left on his deal after this year. It could be a short stint in Washington.
8. Joe Burrow sets an NFL record for completion percentage
Drew Brees currently holds the mark, at 74.4 percent in 2018. Burrow’s 2021 performance (70.4 percent) ranks 10th all time. Burrow’s average pass last year went 8.3 yards, according to Next Gen Stats. Brees’s average throw in 2018 went 7.1 yards.
Burrow talked earlier this offseason about how he expects defenses to play more two-high coverages against the Bengals in 2022. Opponents are going to prioritize stopping explosive plays against Cincinnati, and there will be games in which Burrow is forced to methodically move the ball down the field.
Next Gen Stats tracks expected completion percentage, which looks at the likelihood of a completion on every attempt, based on distance, pressure, separation, and other factors. Burrow’s expected completion percentage last year ranked 29th out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks. In other words, he was attempting (and completing!) difficult throws. If defenses change how they play Burrow in 2022 to try to reduce those explosive downfield plays, he could benefit from easier throws.
One more metric: completion percentage above expectation. That looks at expected completion percentage and then measures it against actual completion percentage. In 2018, Brees led the NFL at plus-6.9 percent. Last year, Burrow led the NFL at plus-6 percent.
The prediction: In 2022, Burrow surpasses Brees and becomes the first quarterback in NFL history to complete 75 percent of his attempts.
9. Tom Brady’s future becomes the biggest story in the NFL by Thanksgiving
It’s impossible to know what to make of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On one hand, they are the betting favorites to get out of the NFC. On the other, their interior offensive line has been decimated by injuries, and Tom Brady missed 11 days of training camp for reasons that remain unclear.
Tom Brady addressing his 11-day break from the team in training camp. “I’m 45 years old. There’s a lot of shit going on.” pic.twitter.com/yr70fVfotN— Rick Stroud (@NFLSTROUD) August 28, 2022
What Brady is attempting to do at 45 years old is unprecedented. He played at an MVP-caliber level last year. Then he retired. Then he unretired. The Dolphins tampered to try to land Brady as recently as last December. He was rumored to be close to a deal to join the Raiders before 2020. Oh, and he has a monster deal in place to join Fox as an announcer whenever he stops playing.
Lost in all of this is the fact that Brady is a free agent after the season. What will happen if he plays well but the Bucs don’t experience team success? Could he switch teams one more time at the age of 46? Are we sure he’ll ever actually call a game for Fox? Are we sure that he’ll play out the whole 2022 season for the Bucs without interruption? What if he wins another Super Bowl?
Somehow, it feels like the many Brady story lines this offseason haven’t received enough attention. Regardless of how the first couple of months of the season play out, Brady’s future figures to develop into the biggest story in the NFL.
10. The Jaguars finish in second place in the AFC South
I know what you’re thinking: That doesn’t seem very bold. But let me remind you that this franchise has won a total of four games in the past two seasons and has won more than six games exactly one(!) time in the past 11 years.
The veterans on this team have to feel a special sense of freedom and happiness going from Urban Meyer to Doug Pederson. I was not on board with most of GM Trent Baalke’s offseason moves, but for 2022, this is a much-improved roster. Brandon Scherff is an upgrade at guard. Christian Kirk is an upgrade at wide receiver, even if he was overpaid. Darious Williams is an upgrade at cornerback. And the Jaguars have fun, young wild cards like no. 1 pick Travon Walker and second-year running back Travis Etienne, who didn’t play as a rookie.
The Jaguars had the fifth-most-injured offense last year and were harmed more by turnovers than any other team, according to TruMedia’s expected points added (EPA) model. Those are factors that could easily regress to the mean in 2022.
If I had more guts, I’d predict the Jags to win the wide-open AFC South, but I can’t quite get there. Eight wins and a second-place finish, though? Sign me up.