Saquon Barkley and Biggest X-Factors of 2022 NFL Season Playoff Push
The NFL playoff picture is starting to come into focus. While a jam-packed Thanksgiving week slate will bring more clarity, it’s readily apparent which teams still have a chance of making it to the postseason and which are already looking forward to next year.
More teams will soon join the latter group if they don’t turn things around quickly. These flawed teams could make noise in the postseason, but they need certain players to get them there in the first place.
These five X-factors are worth watching as they try to guide their respective teams to the NFL playoffs over the coming weeks.
Can Saquon Barkley Shoulder The Entire New York Giants’ Offensive Load?
The New York Giants are one of the biggest surprises of the 2022 campaign. They appeared due for another year of rebuilding, but a regime change coupled with a healthy Saquon Barkley has completely rejuvenated them.
The G-Men appeared to be a shoo-in for a playoff berth after jumping out to a 6-1 start, including four straight victories between Weeks 4 and 7. Things have been a bit rocky since then, however, as they've lost two of the last three games.
It’s no coincidence that the Giants have lost in two of Barkley’s worst games this year. He had only 22 yards on 15 carries in a 31-18 defeat to the Detroit Lions this past weekend and rushed 20 times for 53 yards in a 27-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8.
While the Giants are still on pace to snap their half-decade playoff draught—and are only two games back in their quest for their first NFC East title since 2011—their success by and large hinges on Barkley’s ability to lift the offense.
The Giants have one of the weakest receiving corps in the NFL. Barkley currently leads the team in both targets (41) and receptions (31). Darius Slayton has been the top receiver, but he has only 24 receptions for 413 yards and two touchdowns. No other wideout on the roster has more than 239 yards or a single touchdown.
That receiving corps took a hit it couldn't afford Sunday when rookie wideout Wan'Dale Robinson suffered a torn ACL. Barkley will likely take on even more work as a result.
Although Barkley has adeptly answered the call during his resurgent campaign, he has a concerning injury history of his own. Unfortunately, the Giants can’t scale back his heavy usage—only Derrick Henry has more rushing yards and totes than Barkley—and still expect to contend.
If Barkley can stay healthy and get back on track following his season-low showing in Week 11, the Giants should be fine. But if the fifth-year veteran suffers an injury or goes through a late-season slump, New York could be a quick out in the playoffs or even miss out entirely.
Can Tom Brady Rekindle His Magic And Lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a Playoff Run?
Tom Brady solidified his status as the greatest quarterback of all time after he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and led them to a Super Bowl victory in his first season. Since then, though, Brady has struggled to lead a banged-up supporting cast back to the promised land.
The Bucs mounted an incredible title defense effort in last year’s playoffs, but they came up just short against the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams without star wideout Chris Godwin and several others in the lineup. This year, the Bucs are in danger of missing the playoffs entirely after limping to a .500 record heading into Week 12.
At 5-5, Tampa still has a slim foothold atop the NFC South, but that lead is heavily buoyed by the relative ineptness of the division. The rebuilding Atlanta Falcons are shockingly only a half-game behind the Bucs, and the 4-7 New Orleans Saints are even still in the running.
Offensive woes are at the heart of Tampa Bay's issues. One year after averaging 405.9 yards and 30.1 points per game, the Bucs are down to 340.5 yards and 18.3 points per game this season.
Brady is struggling as well. After throwing for 83 touchdowns during his first two seasons in Tampa, the 45-year-old is on track for only 20 scores in 2022. He threw for a career-high 5,316 passing yards last year, but he would finish with 4,768 yards this season if his current pace holds.
A banged-up offensive line, ineffective running game and slipping receiving corps isn’t doing Brady any favors, but the future Hall of Famer has overcome similar obstacles before. If Brady can work his magic and get the Buccaneers back on track in time for the playoffs, they could hang with anyone.
There’s still a long way to go, though, and Tampa is quickly running out of time.
Can Micah Parsons Carry the Dallas Cowboys If Their Offense Falters?
Over the past few years, the Dallas Cowboys went from having one of the league’s most vulnerable defenses to boasting one of its most dangerous young units.
Dallas' decision to draft linebacker Micah Parsons early in the first round last year has played a massive role in this defensive turnaround. Parsons immediately transformed this squad during a Defensive Rookie of the Year-winning campaign and has followed that incredible start out with a sterling sophomore showing.
Parsons already has 10 sacks in 10 games, a mark only that New England Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon is currently besting. He’s pacing a devastating group of Dallas pass-rushers who lead the NFL with 42 sacks, six more than Judon’s second-ranked Patriots.
With Parsons leading the way, the Cowboys have improved from being a middling defense that allowed 351.0 yards and 21.1 points last year to a top-10 total defense—giving up only 310.6 yards on average—and a league-low 16.7 points per game.
The Penn State product does more than just terrorize quarterbacks. He’s recorded two pass defenses and a fumble recovery, ranks third on the team in tackles (47) and leads the squad in both tackles for a loss (11) and forced fumbles (three).
Dallas has needed this incredible play from Parsons to withstand some rough patches during its impressive 7-3 start to the season. He racked up four sacks, 10 quarterback hits and a forced fumble during the five games that starting quarterback Dak Prescott missed with a thumb injury earlier this year, helping the Cowboys go 4-1 in that span.
While Dallas’ offense seems back up to speed after scoring a whopping 117 points over the last three games, there’s no guarantee that the team won’t hit another lull down the stretch if the injury bug bites or Prescott struggles.
If Parsons can continue his incredible trajectory, Dallas should emerge from the hyper-competitive NFC East with at least a wild-card berth and a shot at winning it all. If he comes back to earth, the Cowboys will likely come up short of making their first NFC Championship Game since the 1995 season.
Can Zach Wilson Elevate His Game Before Squandering a Great New York Jets Defense?
The New York Jets' lengthy rebuild finally seems to be nearing its end, but they still have a major question mark at the most important position on the field.
The Jets jumped out to a 5-2 start this season thanks to their hard-nosed defense and tough-running offense, but things began to go off the rails after sensational rookie running back Breece Hall went down for the year with a torn ACL in Week 7. Since then, the Jets have lost two of their last three games, both against the rival New England Patriots.
Second-year quarterback Zach Wilson's lack of development was on full display during Gang Green’s loss to the Pats on Sunday, as he finished 9-of-22 for only 77 yards. The Pats also stonewalled a running game that hasn’t looked the same without Hall, limiting New York to a meager 59 yards on 23 carries.
Despite the offense's struggles, the Jets were still in position to beat the Patriots for the first time since 2015. New England scored only three points until a punt-return touchdown in the waning moments gave the squad its 14th consecutive victory over the Jets.
While Wilson has a much more impressive starting record this year (5-2) than he had as a rookie (3-10), he hasn’t shown much growth. He has the exact same completion percentage as he did last season (55.6), and he’s on pace for only eight touchdown passes and 10 interceptions after he threw nine touchdowns and threw 11 picks last year.
The improvement of New York’s defense has been the key catalyst for the team's turnaround. Gang Green ranks in the top 10 in both yards and points allowed this season after finishing last in both categories last year.
While it’s still too early to call Wilson a bust, he needs to make major strides to bring New York’s offense up to the same level as its defense. It isn't too late for that to happen, as the 6-4 Jets are still tied with the Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals for the AFC’s final wild-card spot.
The Jets would miss the playoffs because of tiebreakers if the season ended today. But Gang Green can still end the league’s longest active postseason drought if Wilson gets going.
Can the Arizona Cardinals Reach the Playoffs With a Full-Strength Receiving Corps?
The Arizona Cardinals were one of the more intriguing contenders heading into 2022. After suffering an embarrassing defeat in last year’s Wild Card Round, they brought in Marquise Brown to bolster a receiving corps that looked to be one of the NFL’s deepest.
Unfortunately, that group has yet to showcase its full-strength capabilities.
DeAndre Hopkins missed the first six games of the season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. During his absence, the Cardinals went 2-4 and dug themselves into a hole that they're still working to climb out of.
While Brown helped pick up the slack during his fellow star wideout’s absence, he went down with a foot injury in Week 6 and hasn’t played since. While Hopkins has been going on an absolute tear since he returned from his suspension, it's unclear whether he can carry this offense to a postseason appearance.
Arizona has mustered only two wins in the five games since Hopkins came back. The 30-year-old has racked up an eye-popping 45 receptions on 58 targets for 487 yards and two touchdowns in that span, but it hasn’t been enough to will the Cardinals back into contention.
The Cardinals’ fading postseason chances took a major hit on Monday night after the squad suffered a blowout 38-10 loss to the rival San Francisco 49ers. The result pulled San Francisco even with the 6-4 Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West standings, while the Cardinals are well behind at 4-7 and running out of time.
Health could be the only factor that can save the Cardinals over the final two months of the campaign.
After Brown failed to suit up this week, NFL insider Jordan Schultz reported he is eyeing a Week 12 return. His presence should greatly boost a passing attack that needs to reach its potential for Arizona to have a chance at a playoff berth.
If the Cardinals can also get quarterback Kyler Murray—who missed the last two games with a hamstring injury—back to complement their star wideouts, they could go on a season-saving run.