Earlier in the week I did the AFC, now I’m doing the NFC. I did most of this before the games on Sunday but not all of it. For a lot of these I’m cheating because it’s already Sunday night. But whatever; sue me.
The NFC is weird. In my view, there’s a clear-cut top-3 in the Rams, Bucs and Packers, but all three of those teams are very flawed and thus the NFC is pretty wide open. I understand why people think the Eagles could actually win the NFC–because the conference is a huge question mark and it does not feel like there are any truly elite teams in it.
We saw the Rams’ offensive line just get manhandled by the Bills in the season opener. The Bills sacked Matthew Stafford 7 times and didn’t even have to blitz. It was ugly. Andrew Whitworth’s retirement was a huge loss for the Rams. They have not replaced him at left tackle, and it looks like it’s a serious problem right now.
The Bucs also have serious offensive line issues, which stem mostly from injuries to their best offensive linemen. Center Ryan Jensen is on injured reserve. Guard Aaron Stinnie is on injured reserve. And this is after losing Pro Bowler Ali Marpet to retirement, and former starting guard Alex Cappa leaving in free agency for the Bengals. It’s a completely new offensive line in Tampa for the most part. Tristan Wirfs is even dealing with an oblique injury. Their offensive line situation might be even worse than the Rams.
The Cowboys are another top NFC team that is dealing with serious issues on their offensive line. Tyron Smith is in IR, Connor Williams and La’el Collins left in free agency. The Cowboys now have Zack Martin plus a bunch of young, unproven guys on their O-Line.
So there are some seriously flawed teams contending for the NFC Championship going into 2022.
Let’s go over the divisions one by one:
- Eagles: This is probably the most complete roster in the NFC East. They’ve got weapons on offense (AJ Brown looked incredible in week 1), they have a great O-Line, and they have dudes on defense. Philly was a playoff team last year and they’re better this year. It all comes down to Jalen Hurts, though. He’s really the key to it all. They go as far as he goes. And I’m actually bullish on him. I’ve been watching Jalen Hurts since he was a freshman at Alabama in 2016. Back then, he could barely throw the ball at all. He was like a running back playing quarterback. It got to a point where his limitations as a passer caused Nick Saban to bench him for Tua at halftime of the 2017 National Championship Game. Eventually Hurts transferred to Oklahoma and began developing as a passer under Lincoln Riley. I was amazed watching him in 2019, how much he had progressed throwing the ball. It was significant. And he’s gotten better in each of his seasons in the NFL throwing the ball. I expect this year to be yet another improvement for him as a passer. I’m not saying he’s going to be Tom Brady out there, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s just got to be a “B” level passer, because he’s an “A” level runner. If Hurts continues to improve as a thrower, the Eagles win this division fairly easily. The only question is whether or not they can make some noise in the playoffs. It’s tough for me to say they can right now because they were in the playoffs last year and got bounced pretty convincingly by the Bucs, but they’re young and improving. Philly will be better this year and they have a higher ceiling than they did last season.
- Commanders: Wentz got a lot of shit for how things went down with the Colts last year but he was actually not all that bad. He had 27 TDs and 7 INTs last year. I think if this Washington defense can get back to its 2020 form when it was the best in the league (getting Chase Young back is a huge part of that), this team will be a threat to make the playoffs. They’ve got weapons on offense–McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Antonio Gibson, McKissic, Logan Thomas. I think they could win a few games this year and be in the mix. Obviously their ceiling isn’t super high because I don’t know if they’ll be elite on either side of the ball.
- Generally you have to be elite on at least one side of the ball if I’m going to consider you a Super Bowl contender–you have to either be elite on offense and competent on defense, or elite on defense and competent on offense. Or, if you’re not elite at either, you have to be highly competent at both. So either an “A+” offense and a “B+” defense, a “B+” offense and an “A+” defense. Or you can be an A- on both offense and defense. I don’t think the Commanders are going to be an “A-” or better on either side of the ball this year.
- For reference, I would say “A+” means being top-3 in the league in a given category. That’s what qualifies as an A+ in my book. If you have a top-3 offense, you have an A+ offense. Same with defense–if you’re top-3, you’re an A+ defense.
- Giants: Look, until they move on from Daniel Jones, I don’t see this team doing much. But then again, you look at what Brian Daboll did with Josh Allen… Daniel Jones, while he’s obviously not as good as Josh Allen, he’s got that skillset where he can run. I’ll put it this way: if there’s anyone who can get the most out of Daniel Jones, it’s probably Brian Daboll. The Giants do actually have some good weapons on offense with Saquon (assuming he doesn’t get hurt), Kadarius Toney, Wan’Dale Robinson and all the rest. And they’ve spent high draft picks on offensive linemen lately so their O-Line should be improved. They might actually be better than Washington if things work out with Daboll and Daniel Jones, but the most likely scenario is that the Giants finish last in this division. Vegas has their win total at 7.5, so they’re not projected to be horrible, but they are not a team ready to win 10+ games anytime soon.
- Just an addition after watching them play: yes, Daniel Jones is limited, and he almost cost the Giants that game against the Titans with that interception in the end zone. But outside of that he was actually pretty decent. Brain Daboll is going to get the most out of him. The real takeaway for the Giants right now is that Saquon Barkley is back in a major way. Saquon Barkley was the main reason the Giants scored enough points to win that game today. He’s the engine of that offense. Saquon Barkley is HIM.
- Cowboys: Like I said, I cheated a bit on this assignment and wrote some of these team predictions after watching them play their first game of the year. The Cowboys are one of those teams. They looked like flat Coca Cola in that game. Just no explosiveness on offense at all. And defensively, they got some stops in the red zone and forced the Bucs to kick like 5 field goals, but the Bucs very well could’ve been up like 35-3 in that game. The Cowboys are lucky it was only 19-3, which is still a blowout in my book. The Cowboys are going nowhere fast with Mike McCarthy, their offensive line is falling apart, and now Dak Prescott is going to be out several weaks with a messed up hand. The Cowboys could very well finish last in this division. The Giants looked better than advertised, and I think they should be better than the Cowboys this year now that Dak is going to miss time.
- Packers: Elephant in the room first: they lost Davante Adams, arguably the best receiver in the league. It’s a tremendous blow to their offense. Their receiver corps is now led by Allen Lazard (probably a 3 at best but now forced into being a 1), Sammy Watkins (speedy, but injury prone and wildly inconsistent despite playing with Patrick Mahomes for 3 seasons), Randall Cobb (who used to be really good but is now 32 and past his prime), Christian Watson (an uber-talented physical freak rookie but very raw and unpolished, plus he missed most of the offseason with an injury), and Romeo Doubs (another rookie who is hyped up). It’s a pretty bare cupboard of pass catchers in Green Bay. But then again, having Davante Adams didn’t get the Packers a whole lot in terms of postseason success. They were one-and-done this past season, and they lost in the NFC Championship in consecutive years before that. Davante didn’t get them to a Super Bowl. In fact, there are people out there who would tell you that maybe Aaron Rodgers was a little too Davante-centric and it hurt the team. There was a play late in the playoff game against San Fran where Rodgers forced it downfield to Davante, who was in double coverage, while Allen Lazard was wide open underneath. The ball fell incomplete, the Packers lost the game, and many blamed Rodgers’ tunnel vision for Davante. Now, obviously getting rid of Davante isn’t a good thing for Green Bay–it would have probably been better if they kept him and Rodgers just learned to stop forcing the ball to him. But it is to say that maybe Rodgers relied on him to a fault. And again, despite having the best QB-WR duo in the league for at least 3 years, it didn’t translate to postseason success. Maybe it was time to shake things up in Green Bay. They now are going to rely on Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, one of the best running back duos in the league. PFF says they have the 5th-best offensive line in the league, and they’re getting Bakhtiari back possibly for week 1. And because they spent so many high draft picks on defense the past several years, they now have one of the best defenses in the NFL. Sharp says they are the consensus best secondary in the league with Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes and Rasual Douglas. Now, their front seven leaves a bit to be desired–I don’t know how great their pass rush will be, so that could be an issue. Putting pressure on opposing QBs is so damn important in today’s NFL. You saw how big of an impact Buffalo’s pass rush had in that game against the Rams. And last season, Rams’ pass rush was a big part of the reason they won the Super Bowl. Tampa’s pass rush was huge for them the year before. Having a pass rush is a big deal because passing is such a big deal in today’s NFL, so I do think it’s an issue that Green Bay’s is a question mark.
- I really don’t know about the Packers, honestly. They’re now built on defense and running, which is a massive departure from how they’ve traditionally been built in the Rodgers era. And yet they still have Rodgers, the back-to-back MVP. Obviously you’d prefer him to have better pass-catchers, and if they did they’d be basically the most stacked team in the league. But in a salary-capped league, this is what happens when you pay your quarterback $50 million a year: you are deficient elsewhere. So I don’t know how the Packers will fare this year. I think they’ll be good, and I think they still “own” this division, but I don’t think they’re a serious threat to win the NFC.
- We’ve just seen them choke in the playoffs three straight years–in fact, they’ve choked in every playoff appearance they’ve had since winning the Super Bowl in 2010. I think people are just done with the Packers at this point. There’s a prevailing sense that they simply cannot get it done–specifically that Rodgers cannot get it done. But I don’t know. Maybe now that the expectations are all gone for the Packers they might actually win. They have a whole new formula now–they’ve got a defense and a likely-elite running game. Maybe taking a whole new approach at team-building and not asking Rodgers to do so much will yield a different result for the Packers at long last. I think they win 10-12 games, and although I sounded optimistic about them the past few paragraphs, I don’t see them as a Super Bowl team because of their pass rush and their lack of great pass-catchers. I just don’t think they have enough firepower to beat the best of the best in this league.
- Vikings: They should have one of the league’s best offenses with former Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell as head coach. They’ve got a stupid amount of weapons on offense–Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and people are saying their third wide receiver KJ Osborn is poised for a breakout season. The issue for Minnesota is that their defense took a big step back last season, and it’s a serious question mark for them this year. They spent a lot of their high draft picks on defense this past year, but it may be a while before those guys really start panning out and making an impact. They did get Zadarius Smith from the Packers in free agency, and that’s an impact signing, but I still don’t know if I trust that Minnesota defense. They have the potential to be a playoff team for sure, but I don’t think they’re quite on the level of the best teams in the conference.
- In the aftermath of the Vikings beating the Packers 23-7 on Sunday afternoon, I think the Vikings have to be the current favorites to win this division. It didn’t even look close. Justin Jefferson is unstoppable, the Vikings defense looks ferocious somehow, and the Packers look completely dysfunctional. But I just want to put the brakes on this a little bit: yes, the Vikings looked great and the Packers looked horrible, but I feel like the Packers get smoked in Week 1 every year recently, and they always bounce back. I think the Packers will bounce back again. Don’t assume the Vikings will just run away with this division.
- Lions: I watched Hard Knocks and now I’m drinking the Lions Kool Aid. I don’t know if I can be trusted to evaluate this team objectively, because I actually think they could make some noise. I really think they could be an 8-9 win team this year. Vegas has their win total at 6.5, which is the same as the Bears, but the Lions are definitely better than the Bears this year. Right? Right? Look, the Lions defense might not be all that great even with the addition of Aidan Hutchinson. But their offense should be pretty decent. D’Andre Swift is a damn good running back, Amon Ra St. Brown should be a pretty solid receiver, TJ Hockenson is a budding star at tight end, and the Lions have one of the best offensive lines in the league. I think Jared Goff is good enough to win some games, although he’s obviously limited as a QB. And then they should get Jameson Williams back later in the season to really take the top off of defenses. They’re gonna score some points in Detroit.
- Bears: So the 49ers traded up in the 2021 draft to pick Trey Lance at #3. The Bears traded up to take Justin Fields at #11. Today they faced off in Chicago in a driving rain storm, and Justin Fields got the win. He was definitely better than Lance was–I wonder if the 49ers regret choosing Lance over him? And it’s not like the Bears have the better roster; the 49ers do. Anyway, it was a very encouraging start to the season for the Bears. They have a new head coach and a new GM, and for them to beat a team like San Francisco, that’s big-time. They have to keep the momentum going. There’s a decent chance they are not the worst team in this division, but they have the most unproven roster, so I’m putting them 4th. But they have upside if Justin Fields pans out.
- 49ers: I don’t want to overreact too much to how bad the Rams looked on opening night, but the 49ers look like not only the best team in this division, but perhaps the best team in the NFC on paper. Their roster is just loaded. The big question mark I see is Trey Lance. He’s just so raw and inexperienced, yet this team is ready to win now. If he pans out as they expect–and they are expecting him to be a major difference maker given that they took him 3rd overall in the 2021 draft and gave up a ton to move up and get him–then they might be really dangerous. San Francisco nearly won a Super Bowl in 2019 with Jimmy G and probably should’ve gotten back there last season, but if the 49ers have a real playmaker at quarterback in Lance, that’s a game-changer. However, I just don’t about him. I was skeptical of him coming out of college because he went to an FCS school and had like 120 total pass attempts his entire college career. And when he played last year he looked like he was in way over his head. I do, however, believe in Kyle Shanahan, and if there’s anyone that can turn Trey Lance into a star quarterback, it’s him. But it’s a tall order.
- I really want to pick the 49ers to not only win this division but win the whole NFC. It’s there for the taking for them. But I just don’t know if I believe in Trey Lance. With these young quarterbacks, if they’re good, it’s evident pretty early on–Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, etc. And it was not evident with Trey Lance with what I saw last year. It looked like he was a long ways away. Now, if it doesn’t work out with Lance early on, the 49ers still have Garoppolo, and given this team’s potential, Kyle Shanahan will not have a lot of patience with Lance. He’s just not going to waste this season in the name of giving Trey Lance time to learn. If Lance isn’t working, Shanahan will put in Jimmy G. So it’s nice that the Niners have that fallback plan. They’re not all-in on Lance. San Fran is definitely a playoff team with Super Bowl aspirations if they stay healthy. And that’s a big “if” because they’ve had problems in the past staying healthy. For whatever reason they seem to be one of the more injury-prone teams.
- I am going against my gut on this pick because my gut is telling me the 49ers are going to regress this year. I feel like they’re going to get hurt and I feel like Trey Lance isn’t the guy. That’s what my gut is telling me. But I’m going to pick them to win this division in spite of all that. You’ll see why once you read what I think about the other three teams in this division.
- Rams: That offensive line is a real problem. And it’s not going to get fixed mid-season. I don’t think anyone’s going to just trade them a starting-caliber left tackle. I don’t think the Rams are as bad as they looked against the Bills. I think they’ll eventually get Allen Robinson integrated into the offense, but I’m worried about their running game. Cam Akers looked horrible. I’m worried he might just be diminished permanently due to that Achilles tear and the quick turnaround last year. And their defense looked bad–especially Jalen Ramsey. I was definitely enjoying watching him get absolutely barbecued by Stefon Diggs, but the overall takeaway is that the Rams’ defense was not good against Buffalo. Look, the Rams were a complete and total disaster on Thursday night. I get that. But I still think they’re going to get their act together and turn into a playoff team. I don’t think they’ll be that bad all season long. But there are some real problems they have that are un-fixable–most notably the offensive line.
- Cardinals: You’ve got the D-Hop suspension, you’ve got Rondale Moore’s injury, and above all, a general sense that Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury just aren’t good enough to take this team to the promised land. I watched them get smashed by the Chiefs just a few hours ago and the Cardinals just look lifeless, bland and uninspired. I know virtually nothing about their defense other than it got absolutely shredded by the Chiefs. And their offense just looks… blah. I’m out on Arizona.
- Seahawks: I’m pretty sure they’re tanking. If the Seahawks win more than 4 games, it will be both a surprise, and disappointment for Seahawks fans as they are going for that high draft pick to get either CJ Stroud or Bryce Young.
- Bucs: I talked a lot earlier about how the Bucs’ offensive line could be their biggest liability, but PFF ranked it 4th best in the league after free agency was complete–albeit before Jensen went down for the season. Still, though, if Wirfs is okay, PFF likes Tampa’s offensive line. They like Tampa grabbing guard Luke Goedeke in the second round of the draft, they like Tampa picking up Shaq Mason, and they like LT Donovan Smith. Tampa’s offensive line situation might not be as bad as I thought. Obviously the loss of Jensen hurts, but it’s not like Tampa doesn’t have anyone to protect Brady. However, if Brady is under duress all season, that’s a recipe for disaster. Brady is 45 and hates getting sacked more than anything, and if they can’t protect him, it’ll be a long season. The Bucs are loaded with weapons, though–they bought low on Julio Jones, and if Julio can stay healthy, Tampa’s offense is going to be truly scary. Tampa’s defense should again be top-5 in the league. They added Akeim Hicks to an already scary defensive line. With Vita Vea lining up next to him, there will be no running on the Bucs’ defense. Their linebacker corps is stacked with Devin Bush and Lavonte David, and Sharp Football Analysis ranks Tampa’s secondary as the 6th best in the league. So I am not counting out Tampa. They are a legitimate threat to win not only the NFC but the Super Bowl altogether.
- People are discounting the Bucs because of the Brady offseason situation–his brief retirement, the rumors about the issues with his wife, the Dolphins situation, etc. It seems pretty likely it’s his last season in the NFL, at least his last with the Bucs. But don’t for a minute think Brady isn’t 100% committed. If he’s there in the locker room and on the field, he’s all-in. He’s not going to let outside distractions throw him off his game. He’s Tom Brady. He’s there to win a Super Bowl, period. I have no concerns at all about Brady’s focus or where his head is at going into this season.
- Saints: There’s just so many question marks with this team. Will Michael Thomas be his old self? Will Dennis Allen be a better head coach this time around (he went 8-28 with the Raiders as head coach from 2012-2014)? Can that offensive line protect Jameis? Can Jameis recover from this torn ACL? Will Jameis go back to being the guy that threw 30 INTs in 2019, or will he be able to keep the aspects of his game that make him good while cutting down on the turnovers? The thing is, this is a weak division behind Tampa and the Saints are clearly the second-most talented team in it. There is absolutely no reason they shouldn’t finish at least 2nd in this division. That’s a good roster. Are they a playoff team? I’d say borderline. They should be in the mix at the end of the year.
- Panthers: I just don’t have faith in Matt Rhule, and I don’t have a lot of faith in Ben McAdoo as offensive coordinator. I think this will be Matt Rhule’s last season as head coach of the Panthers, but he’s just in a no-win situation. They just don’t have much juice on offense outside of Christian McCaffrey. DJ Moore? Eh, I guess he’s okay. He puts up numbers but I don’t know how much he really impacts winning. On the bright side, they’ve spent a lot of high draft picks on defense lately, and they were actually pretty good last year on defense (2nd fewest yards allowed, 3rd best yards-per-play allowed on defense). So there’s a chance the Panthers are actually pretty decent this year. I think Baker is a fine quarterback who is clearly an upgrade over Sam Darnold. If you have a solid roster, Baker can and will lead you to the playoffs. It’s very possible. There’s actually a chance the Panthers are a surprise playoff team this year. The more I think about them, the more I’m starting to get bullish on them. It all depends on Baker. If he’s good, they could win 9-10 games and it wouldn’t be a shock to me.
- Falcons: The Falcons choked away a 16-point 4th quarter lead to the Saints in week 1. Falcons gonna Falcons. It’s just sad at this point. On a positive note, they actually looked better than expected for most of that game–until they imploded in the 4th quarter. They were moving the ball and they were playing defense. I think this is a rebuilding team, though, and there’s a very slim chance they finish above .500. Mariota was surprisingly good, but he’s not the long-term answer and everyone in Atlanta knows it.
So that’s my assessment of all 16 NFC teams.
This leaves me with the following teams making the playoffs: Philly, Green Bay, Tampa and San Francisco as your division winners, and the LA Rams, Vikings and one more team as the wild cards.
But who is that other team? That’s a tricky question.
In my view it could be one of the following teams: New Orleans, Arizona or Washington or, believe it or not, Carolina. And maybe I’m buying too much into them because they had a huge win in week 1 but possibly the Bears, too, although it’s way too early to tell with them.
Of all those teams, I really don’t know who to choose. I can’t make a decision. I guess if I had to pick I would say Arizona just because they made it last year, but I have very little confidence in them.
Overall, I think when the dust settles at the end of the playoffs, the Bucs will be the last team standing in the NFC. I don’t feel great about them, but I feel the best about them out of all the NFC contenders. I’m envisioning a Tampa/Minnesota NFC Championship Game, although that’s probably an overreaction to week one.
So I guess I’ve got Tampa vs. Buffalo in the Super Bowl. Off the rip, I lean Buffalo in that game, but then again, I will never bet against Tom Brady and that defense. I don’t want to pick the Bucs to win the Super Bowl, but I think that’s exactly what I’m doing.
Bucs over Bills in the Super Bowl. I can’t believe that’s my pick but it is.
Header photo credit: SportsKeeda