B/R NFL Expert Picks for 2022 Division Winners
The NFL can sometimes feel like it's stuck in the upside-down.
Before the season even begins, things appear so clear. Certain teams are considered the favorites for a reason—they have the best quarterback or overall roster depth or easiest path based on competition. Once the campaign starts, everything changes. Injuries occur. Individuals outperform expectations or disappoint. A myriad of factors can affect what looked like an easy prediction prior to games being played.
Every season, turnover occurs among the division winners. In 2021, four new champions emerged compared to the previous year. More will change this fall. Who will they be?
Bleacher Report's group of writers and analysts, featuring Gary Davenport, Kristopher Knox, Maurice Moton, Wes O'Donnell and Brent Sobleski, serves as the master of puppets pulling the strings for this year's division champs.
Based on their projections, four new teams will be crowned during the '22 season. In the biggest twist, another second-year quarterback blossoms after a nondescript rookie campaign to lead his team to a much higher standard than many previously thought.
Stranger things have happened.
Buffalo Bills (5 votes)
The Buffalo Bills are one of two teams to earn a consensus vote, though this selection may not be as clear-cut as it seems.
"This wasn't as easy of a pick as some might think," Knox noted. "I expect the New York Jets to make a big jump in Year 2 of the Robert Saleh/Zach Wilson era, and the Miami Dolphins can be dangerous if Mike McDaniel coaches that greatness out of Tua Tagovailoa. New England, meanwhile, may take a step back but is always going to be relevant in the AFC East race.
"However, the defending division-champion Bills have no glaring weaknesses and, on paper, could be even better than last year after the additions of edge-rusher Von Miller, tight end O.J. Howard and cornerback Kaiir Elam."
Yes, the Dolphins and Jets both appear greatly improved on paper. But the Bills feature arguably the game's best roster with an MVP candidate at quarterback and the league's top-ranked defense. Furthermore, those previously mentioned additions took what could have been construed as weaknesses in the Bills lineup and solidified those areas.
In the end, differentiating between the Bills and their rivals comes down to Josh Allen. He's clearly the best quarterback in the division and one of the top players in all of professional football.
"I mean, it's every receiver, tight end, running back, it's everyone's dream to play with a guy like that," tight end Dawson Knox said during an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "I mean, he can put the ball 70 yards down the field, or throw off his back foot back across himself, or make plays with his legs and extend plays. There's nothing that guy can't do."
Philadelphia Eagles (4 votes)
The Philadelphia Eagles are a year ahead of schedule. The franchise wasn't supposed to make the playoffs last season with an unproven first-year head coach in Nick Sirianni, a transition to quarterback Jalen Hurts and a change in philosophy based on available talent.
Yes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quickly bounced Philadelphia out of the playoffs after building a 31-0 lead going into the fourth quarter of their wild-card meeting. But it's still fair to say the Eagles exceeded expectations in 2021. More importantly, general manager Howie Roseman used the team's immense draft capital, coupled with shrewd signings, to make significant gains and surpass last year's winner, the Dallas Cowboys, after they lost Amari Cooper, Connor Williams and Randy Gregory, Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal this offseason.
"Roseman took three first-round picks and turned them into Jordan Davis, A.J. Brown and a 2023 first-round selection," Sobleski noted. "On top of adding the class' premier interior defender, a true No. 1 wide receiver and another future asset, the Eagles were fortunate to land the reigning Butkus Award winner as the nation's best linebacker, Nakobe Dean, in the third round despite first-round buzz.
"With much-needed fortifications at wide receiver and to the front seven, the Eagles went the veteran route in the secondary by re-signing Anthony Harris and then adding James Bradberry and Jaquiski Tartt.
"Depending on how a person feels about Hurts—and he's the only quarterback ever with 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in his first 20 starts—the Eagles roster doesn't have any glaring holes."
The NFC East is tricky, though, and not everyone fully believes in Philadelphia's chances.
"The New York Giants haven't won more than six games in a season in six years, and with a rookie head coach and rookie GM at the helm, they're deservingly ticketed as the biggest long shot by sportsbooks to win this division," O'Donnell admitted. "The problem here is that no team in this division is that good, either. There are intriguing roster pieces on paper, they play one of the weakest schedules in the league, and maybe, just maybe, the changes made this offseason will light an unexpected spark. It wouldn't be the first time we've seen something like this."
Others Receiving Votes: New York Giants (1 vote)
Cincinnati Bengals (3 votes)
The 2021 season didn't end the way the Cincinnati Bengals hoped it would with a loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI. While the defeat probably still stings for the team and its fanbase, a bright future lies ahead. With the amount of talent on the roster, the moment when quarterback Joe Burrow couldn't evade Aaron Donald during the game's defining play should serve as the beginning of what could be something special.
Burrow and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase are already counted among the top five players at their respective positions by league executives, according to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. They're just the starting point.
Cincinnati features the league's best all-around wide receiver corps. The Bengals defense was good at all three levels before adding safety Daxton Hill, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and defensive lineman Zachary Carter in the first three rounds of this year's draft.
If not for a horrid offensive line, the Bengals might be the reigning Super Bowl champs right now. The team finally attacked that weakness this offseason and added Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La'el Collins to solidify an entire side from center to right tackle. Proper protection for Burrow just might make the Bengals football's most dangerous team.
Even so, they're not runaway favorites in the tough AFC North.
"The AFC West is getting all the run this year, but the North won't be a cakewalk, either," Davenport stated. "A healthy Ravens team will be a tough out, the Pittsburgh Steelers have never had a losing record under head coach Mike Tomlin, and the Cleveland Browns won't be a pushover even with Jacoby Brissett under center. But the Bengals are loaded on offense, possess an underrated defense, and the team did a great job of addressing the offensive line in free agency."
Others Receiving Votes: Baltimore Ravens (2 votes)
Green Bay Packers (4 votes)
The Green Bay Packers are the favorites to win the NFC North almost by default. After all, the Pack have won eight of the last 11 division crowns, including all three since Matt LaFleur became head coach prior to the 2019 campaign.
Despite receiving the majority of votes to win a fourth straight title, some cracks are starting to show.
"The Packers still have the back-to-back MVP in Aaron Rodgers and a bright young defense with cornerback Jaire Alexander, edge-rusher Rashan Gary and nose tackle Kenny Clark," Sobleski mentioned. "Yet concern should present on two fronts.
"First, the game's best wide receiver, Davante Adams, is gone. The Packers wide receiver corps is now reduced to Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, second-round rookie Christian Watson and an aging Randall Cobb. Rodgers can work wonders, but he may need to perform miracles this season, especially behind an unsettled offensive front.
"David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins aren't guaranteed to be healthy for the start of the upcoming campaign. With the team's best blockers possibly out of the lineup, a reworked front won't be nearly as effective, even with Rodgers behind center."
Because of these uncertainties, the door is open for another team to pry open and possibly steal a division crown. The Minnesota Vikings are positioned far better than the Chicago Bears or Detroit Lions to do so.
"The middling madness of the Mike Zimmer era is over." O'Donnell said. "This is a team that handed Green Bay one of only three meaningful losses last season. The Packers are the obvious—and warranted—favorite, but a fully healthy Vikings team with a new offensive mind could finally realize its offensive potential this season. Plus, the Adams-less Packers will take a step back."
Others Receiving Votes: Minnesota Vikings (1 vote)
Indianapolis Colts (3 votes)
The Indianapolis Colts' potential rise to the top of the AFC South standings may have just as much to do with a potential downturn from the Tennessee Titans.
"The Indianapolis Colts acquired quarterback Matt Ryan, who, even at 37 years old, is an upgrade over Carson Wentz," Moton said. "Though they lost defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, new play-caller Gus Bradley has nine years of experience at the position. On top of that, the team added two-time All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Pro Bowl edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue.
"The Colts will win the division on the back of 2021 rushing champion Jonathan Taylor and a stout defense. After back-to-back AFC South championships, the Tennessee Titans will fall as Ryan Tannehill continues to regress following the departure of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and wide receiver A.J. Brown. With defenders stacking the box and daring Tannehill to beat them, Derrick Henry will have a tough time finding open lanes in 2022."
The Colts reevaluated the entire franchise's position after a devastating Week 18 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, which cost Indianapolis a playoff spot. The talent was there, but team chemistry wasn't.
"You search for the right chemistry with any team," owner Jim Irsay said, per The Athletic's Zak Keefer. "Football is as important as any sport there is. If that chemistry is off, if it isn’t there, it can be extremely detrimental and lower performance to a degree that is stunning, you know, and shocking.”
As a result, Indianapolis made the decision to trade Wentz. The team didn't allow itself to be ruled by its mistake. Instead, Ryan can provide a steadying force to an offense that already features the game's leading rusher and one of the league's best offensive lines.
With Gilmore and Ngakoue added to the mix, the Colts are quietly loaded with more than enough to claim their first division title since 2014.
Others Receiving Votes: Tennessee Titans (2 votes)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5 votes)
Tom Brady changed everything.
No, not the culture in Tampa Bay, though he did that already. And, no, not the way he redefined how successful a quarterback can be well into his 40s.
Those are examples of a bigger-picture point of view. In the short term, Brady's 40-day retirement changed the entire complexion of the NFC South and the conference race.
With Brady back, the Buccaneers aren't just overwhelming favorites to win their division. They're also one of the top contenders to capture another Lombardi Trophy.
"Captain Obvious here for the NFC South," Davenport joked. "The New Orleans Saints have some wild-card appeal if Jameis Winston can pick up where he left off in 2021, and Baker Mayfield is a step up at quarterback in Carolina. But the Panthers are still a flawed football team, and the Atlanta Falcons are, um…not good.
"The Buccaneers have questions (Chris Godwin's health and a defense that lost a couple of big pieces chief among them), but the Tampa Tommy Boys are still markedly better than any other team in the division."
While Davenport is right in stating the Bucs are missing a few key pieces from the past few seasons, general manager Jason Licht has done an excellent job filling certain spots.
At guard, Ali Marpet retired and Alex Cappa signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. Licht traded for Shaq Mason and drafted Luke Goedeke to compete with Aaron Stinnie. Wideout Antonio Brown has been replaced by free-agent acquisition Russell Gage. Licht drafted Cade Otton and Ko Kieft to provide depth behind tight end Cameron Brate after Rob Gronkowski retired and O.J. Howard signed with the Buffalo Bills. Akiem Hicks now takes over Ndamukong Suh's spot. The team spent a first-rounder last year on Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to eventually replace Jason Pierre-Paul, and he'll do so this year.
Tampa Bay's roster is stacked after reloading this offseason, and the Bucs should be just as good as they have been.
Los Angeles Chargers (3 votes)
The AFC West could be absolute carnage (in the best way possible), since all four teams look to feature playoff-caliber rosters.
While the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders didn't receive any votes from B/R's pundits, both will be difficult opponents. But the Los Angeles Chargers gained a slight edge over the Kansas City Chiefs in this year's voting despite the latter capturing the last six division crowns.
Why? Justin Herbert, an improved defense and a possible step back from the Chiefs.
"In 2021, the Chargers went 9-8 with a top-five scoring offense and a defense that allowed the fourth-most points," Moton noted. "This offseason, the front office helped Herbert with the addition of edge-rusher Khalil Mack and cornerback J.C. Jackson. Both defenders will significantly improve a generous defense, which takes a lot of pressure off an electric offense.
"The Raiders and Chiefs have questions on the defensive side of the ball because of a new coordinator or the departure of multiple starters. The Broncos have a first-time head coach and first-year pro coordinators on both sides of the ball. The Chargers have continuity and roster balance, giving them a slight edge in the AFC West."
The AFC West is easily the hardest division to predict because it's so talented from top to bottom. A strong argument can be made for any of the four representatives.
L.A.'s improvements on defense certainly help close the gap that Kansas City created with Patrick Mahomes leading the way. However, Herbert's ascension allows the Chargers to be placed at the same level as the Chiefs.
The third-year signal-caller has already shown he can carry an offense and elevate the play of those around him. Some see the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year as the league's next great field general.
"When you're that talented physically and you're smart, it's mind-boggling," an NFL coordinator told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "Adding his strength and power, he's hard to tackle, all of that; and he's seeing things for another season so will have a better understanding."
Others Receiving Votes: Kansas City Chiefs (2 votes)
San Francisco 49ers (3 votes)
Patrick Mahomes. Lamar Jackson. Joe Burrow. Trey Lance?
The aforementioned quarterbacks blossomed in their second years despite not having ideal rookie campaigns. Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith. Jackson didn't become the Baltimore Ravens starter until the stretch run. Burrow ended up on injured reserve because of a torn ACL.
Lance is positioned to make a similar sophomore jump in 2022 after starting only two games as a rookie. The 49ers traded up last year to select Lance third overall. They did so because head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch knew that Jimmy Garoppolo limited the offense. Lance expands the playbook with his athleticism, running ability and immense arm talent.
"Much will hinge on Lance's performance in his first year as a full-time starter," Knox wrote. "However, he showed flashes in limited opportunities last season—97.3 passer rating, 4.4 yards per carry—and has the potential to open up Shanahan's offense in a way that Garoppolo could not.
"The 49ers defense, meanwhile, made some sneaky-valuable additions in Charvarius Ward and rookie second-round pick Drake Jackson. It will be a tight race between L.A. and San Francisco, but the 49ers have won six straight regular-season meetings with the Rams and will edge them out for the division title. (The playoffs, of course, could be a different story.)"
Ultimately, the Niners fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game by only three points despite beating their rival twice during the regular season.
The Rams are now Super Bowl champions, which may cause some complacency and curb their desire to win at the highest level. Or San Francisco might just be outright better this year with a more dynamic quarterback, Nick Bosa now a full year removed from ACL surgery and a healthy George Kittle on the field.
On the flip side, San Francisco lost twice to the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks. But the Cardinals are still in a holding pattern with Kyler Murray's contract, plus DeAndre Hopkins is suspended for the first six games of the season and Chandler Jones is no longer with the team. Seattle, meanwhile, appears to be entering a rebuilding year after trading quarterback Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos.
Others Receiving Votes: Los Angeles Rams (2 votes)