It's time for one of my favorite activities of the NFL preseason - predicting where each team will finish in the standings when the regular season wraps up. It's always a tough task, as you never really know how a team will perform on the field regardless of how they look on paper. Injuries, suspensions, and other off-the-field issues can also play a role, but I'm going to do my best to nail these standings and playoff picture despite all the potential for parity.
I did a decent job with my predictions at the start of 2021, but there were certainly some teams I completely whiffed on. Here's a brief summary of the accuracy of my projections I made a year ago:
Let's go ahead and improve upon those numbers in 2022. Keep reading if you want to see exactly how the league will shake out come January.
x - clinch division
y - clinch wildcard
1. Buffalo Bills - x
2. Miami Dolphins - y
3. New England Patriots
4. New York Jets
I think the Bills have to be the most talented team from top to bottom in the AFC. They're heavy favorites to win their division and I think it's almost a lock that it'll happen as long as they stay healthy. The tough part to predict in this division is where Miami and New England will end at the end of the year. The Dolphins ride in on a hot streak to end their 2021 season and they've given Tua Tagovailoa all the weapons he could need to fuel a high-octane offense. Meanwhile, the Pats aren't going to wow you with their roster, but Bill Belichick's team will pretty much always be in the playoff hunt. They'll only get better as Mac Jones develops, but I'm leaning the Dolphins here to not only notch the second slot in the AFC East, but also play well enough to secure a wild card spot.
The Jets seem to actually be trending in the right direction, but there's no way they make a lot of noise this season even when Zach Wilson gets healthy and returns to the lineup. They're a very safe pick to bring up the rear in this division.
1. Kansas City Chiefs - x
2. Denver Broncos - y
3. Las Vegas Raiders - y
4. Los Angeles Chargers
This is without a doubt the hardest division to predict because I could literally see every team winning it if some of the breaks go their way. I know I've been really high on the Chargers in recent seasons, but they've continued to let me down. The Broncos should be a completely different team with Russell Wilson in the offense, and the Raiders will get an enormous boost in the passing game with Davante Adams split out wide. Honestly, I think the Chiefs probably got a little bit worse in the offseason by losing Tyreek Hill, but I just can't bring myself to place any of the other four teams ahead of them.
I won't be surprised at literally any order in which the AFC West finishes, but barring any significant injuries or massive let downs from any of these teams, I think three of them make the postseason. And again, it could be any three teams. There's a chance these teams beat up on each other enough to prevent that from happening, but my official prediction includes Kansas City, Denver, and Las Vegas all continuing to play past the regular season.
1. Cincinnati Bengals - x
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Cleveland Browns
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Let's work our way up from the bottom for the AFC North, as that's kind of how my process went to sort these four teams. The clear worst team for me is Pittsburgh due to their lack of a quarterback. The offense wasn't very good with Ben Roethlisberger last season, and I think it'll be even worse this year with whoever wins the QB job. Then we have the Browns, who, if Deshaun Watson were able to play the entire season, actually have the talent to make a postseason run. I think they're good enough offensively and defensively to win several games even with Jacoby Brissett or Josh Dobbs at quarterback, but I can't put them above Baltimore or Cincinnati because of their QB situation too.
It was sort of tough picking between the Bengals and Ravens for the top spot, but the selling point for me is the guys around each quarterback. Joe Burrow has Joe Mixon in the backfield and Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Hayden Hurst as his primary pass catchers. Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson will be trying to get the job done with a starting receiver trio of Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, and James Proche. That's not exactly a fear-inducing lineup for opposing defenses. I think the Ravens do have the edge on the defensive side of the ball, but I'm all in on Joey B after Cincinnati's Super Bowl last year, which is why I'm siding with the Bengals to take home this division.
1. Indianapolis Colts - x
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Houston Texans
I think this division is the most clear cut out of all of them in the AFC. (Save this for a potential submission into the "Freezing Cold Takes" Twitter account.) The Colts were locked in and ready for a deep playoff run in 2021, but the erratic Carson Wentz struck and they choked their season away down the stretch. However, with Matt Ryan at the helm, a strong offensive line and run game, and a stout defense, they should be quite good if everyone stays relatively healthy. The Titans will be their only challengers for the division title, but there are question marks as to how they'll perform offensively with Derrick Henry coming off an injury and Ryan Tannehill coming off a pitiful playoff display. They also already lost Harold Landry to an ACL tear in preseason, which is a major blow to the defense. I think Tennessee will hang around and make a push for a wild card spot, but come up just short.
Jacksonville and Houston are the bottom tier teams in the AFC South, but I like the Jaguars a lot more right now than the Texans. Doug Pederson has taken over the Jags and will quickly replace the seemingly horrible culture installed by Urban Meyer last year. Trevor Lawrence will enter his second season with his college teammate Travis Etienne back from injury and newly added receiver Christian Kirk to stretch the defense. Jacksonville has a lot more talent across the board than Houston in my opinion, which is why I think they win a couple more games during the season.
1. Philadelphia Eagles - x
2. Dallas Cowboys - y
3. Washington Commanders
4. New York Giants
The top two teams here are almost interchangeable for me. It's hard to imagine the Eagles have done anything but improve after adding star receiver A.J. Brown in the offseason, and after sneaking into the playoffs a year ago, Jalen Hurts and company could really start to roll in 2022. But I do still like the Cowboys and think their offense will win them a lot games as the defense maybe tightens up a little from last season. I'm going with Philly over Dallas to win the NFC East, but I actually think both teams will find the postseason even if the actual order is flipped.
Washington will take on their debut season as the Commanders with Carson Wentz commanding the offense. And while I don't love that for them, I think he will be better than their quarterback options from last season. He'll have some legitimate weapons around him, though that didn't seem to help a ton last year with the Colts. Still, I like Washington's defense a lot and thus have them finishing ahead of the Giants. But if Saquon Barkley and the rest of New York's receivers can actually stay healthy this season, they might not be all that bad.
1. Los Angeles Rams - x
2. San Francisco 49ers - y
3. Arizona Cardinals
4. Seattle Seahawks
In recent seasons, this division has been football's toughest division. But that title has been overtaken by the AFC West now. The Rams and 49ers are the true contenders in this quadrant, but I'd have to be crazy to pick anyone other than L.A. to win the crown at the end of the season. Matthew Stafford has found his groove with Sean McVay and they return most of their team from the Super Bowl run, meaning they should pick up just about where they left off as the 2022 season gets under way. The Niners will be starting the year with a new quarterback, but reports indicate everyone in the building loves Trey Lance. They've proven they can contend for Super Bowls on the back of their run game and defense, and I think this season will be no different. Anything Lance can give them in the passing game will be a plus.
It's kind of tough to slide the Cardinals down this list and out of the postseason, but they've been so bad down the stretch of recent seasons that it's hard to trust them when the pressure is on. To make matters even worse for them, DeAndre Hopkins will miss their first six games. It feels like a completely different team with and without Hopkins, so I expect them to have a shaky start. They could, and probably will, make a late push for the postseason, but I think it's more likely they finish on the outside looking in. The Seahawks traded away their franchise QB and are now just one more bad season away from a full rebuild in my opinion. They have a few really good players, but Drew Lock certainly isn't the guy who's going to get the job done in Seattle.
1. Green Bay Packers - x
2. Minnesota Vikings - y
3. Detroit Lions
4. Chicago Bears
No Davante, no problem as far as I'm concerned. Give me the Packers to repeat as division champs with relative ease as long as Aaron Rodgers is there and playing at a high level. There's a slight concern with Green Bay's receiving corps heading into the season, but I imagine most of everything will be smoothed out early on and the Packers will be able to win lots of games again in 2022. The Vikings are the only other team who would have a shot at winning the North, but they're a full step behind the Packers if you ask me. Minnesota's defense just can't get the job done and they're offensive line forces Kirk Cousins to duck and cover way too often for me to pick them to win the division. However, I do think they still find their way into the postseason as a wild card team.
This is a semi bold prediction, but I'm taking the Lions to leapfrog the Bears to finish third in the division. These two squads are pretty evenly matched in my opinion, but I'm just not a believer in Justin Fields at all. It feels like, while both teams struggled in 2021, Detroit is on a better trajectory heading into the regular season. Now, neither of these teams will be in the playoff picture by season end, but I like 2022 to be a nice little stepping stone year for Dan Campbell and the Lions.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - x
2. New Orleans Saints
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Atlanta Falcons
I have the NFC South as the odd division out to only get one team in the playoffs. The Buccaneers are the heavy favorites and the no brainer pick to win the division, but things get a little interesting after that. I kind of like Carolina's offense with Baker Mayfield under center and their important pieces back from injury, but they were so bad offensively last year that they'll need a massive performance improvement to win a significant amount of extra games in 2022. I also fully expect Christian McCaffrey to get banged up and miss some time, as he's only played ten games combined over the last two seasons. Which is why I have them below the Saints in the final pecking order, who should be good on defense and have the weapons to take some pressure off Jameis Winston in his first season in Dennis Allen's offense.
The Falcons should definitely be the worst team in the division, and perhaps the league with a new QB in his final chance to be a starter in the NFL. They have no real weapons outside of Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts, and the defense should be pretty lousy again.
So, do you agree or disagree with my final standing predictions? What teams did I get right or wrong and how might you expect the league to shake out differently? Be sure to express how I dissed your favorite team in the comments below, and check back after Week 5 of the season where I'll update my predictions after we see a few weeks of NFL action.
Written by Nick Swatson
Expert Nick Swatson discusses all the news, predictions, and outcomes surrounding the NFL.