A way-too-early 2022-23 NFL Playoff format prediction

Brian Bloom, Staff Writer

It’s that time of the year again – football is back. 

The first week (and the exception of the last two of three scheduled days for week two) have already given us an early impression on how the 2022-23 NFL Playoffs could stack up come January.

Can the Buffalo Bills finally live up to their championship expectations after their dominant showing against the defending champions in week one? Will Joe Burrow shake off an extremely rough start to the season in order to make a resurgence to the Super Bowl? How will Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers lead their teams after taking heartbreaking defeats in last season’s playoffs? 

Football fans will have those answers in the coming months as we take a dive into my top-12 predictions for the season.

American Football Conference (AFC)

1. Buffalo Bills (14-3)

The Bills had a disappointing letdown against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs, which left fans with another playoff letdown. However, the Bills should be considered the favorite to win the AFC championship this season, boasting the top scoring defense and the third-best scoring offense in 2021 – on top of the fact that they obliterated the Rams, 31-10 in their first time out this season.

Quarterback Josh Allen continues to improve and the star-studded defense added even more talent to its secondary unit, including two-time Super Bowl champion edge-rusher Von Miller signing a one-year deal and cornerback Kaiir Elam in the 2022 draft (23rd overall). 

On the same note, the loss of former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is cause for concern, but Allen and receivers Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis should be able to pick up the slack as they’ve proven already. The first half of the season will prove trivial as the Bills face Baltimore and Kansas City while hosting Tennessee and Pittsburgh in weeks two through six, but the second half of the season is much more friendly. 

The Bills should have no problem cruising through the mediocre AFC East division and capturing the AFC’s top seed overall. 

2. Los Angeles Chargers (12-5)

The Chargers are attempting to go all-in this season after narrowly missing out on the playoffs with a 9-8 record last year. 

With recent additions to a defensive unit already highlighted by edge-rusher Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James, the Chargers have welcomed all-world rusher Khalil Mack and Pro Bowl corner J.C. Jackson in an effort to obstruct an opponent’s offense from finding any rhythm. 

Although the offense was projected to do very well once again before the season began, quarterback Justin Herbert suffered a fracture to his rib cartilage in the Chargers’ first game against the Chiefs. He is anticipated to make a recovery sooner rather than later, but without the guarantee of their offensive juggernaut at the helm of it all, players like Austin Ekeler and a receiving core highlighted by Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are now forced to navigate different avenues of effective production.

The AFC West is widely considered the best division in football, as it also includes Kansas City, the Las Vegas Raiders and the Denver Broncos – all of which have the ability to make a serious postseason run to compete for a Super Bowl title. However, I believe the Chargers will reign victorious over their division rivals despite the current adversities. 

At the same time, naysayers could also point out the fact that the Chargers have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this season, facing what some would call bottom-tier opponents like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and the Cleveland Browns. 

Head coach Brandon Staley will take his team to new heights this season and lead the Chargers to their first chance at a division title since 2009.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (12-5)

This pick is very tough, as both the Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens should give each other a fight for the AFC North title, but coming off of a Super Bowl loss to the Rams, Burrow is on a revenge tour this season.

The stout defense in 2021 may take a step back this year, but will continue to do the job with solid units at all three levels led by edge-rusher Trey Hendrickson, linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt and pro bowl safety Jessie Bates III.

On the other hand, the offense struggled dramatically against the Steelers in week one, as third-year receiver Tee Higgins suffered a concussion early in the match and Burrow struggled to string together positive offensive drives. This game was considered to be one of the best, if not the best, games to start the season as it ended in nail-biter in overtime. The Bengals had a chance to walk away with a victory at home, but blew the opportunity on a missed 52-yard field goal attempt that later resulted in the Steelers walking away with the win with a field goal of their own.

One should also resurface the fact that last year’s offensive line allowed Burrow to be the most sacked QB in the league last season (51 times), in which the organization took exceptional notice and added center Ted Karras, guard Alex Cappa and tackle La’el Collins to the lineup in hopes to avoid their QB1 from suffering this season.

The Bengals are poised against a tough schedule, facing seven different teams that made the playoffs last season, but they will win enough conference games to have the tiebreaker with the Ravens to capture their second-straight AFC North crown. 

4. Baltimore Ravens (12-5)

Baltimore is a very intriguing team this season for several reasons. They missed the playoffs last year due to a flurry of injuries all over the field that consisted of QB Lamar Jackson, two running backs high on the depth chart (J. K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards) and a huge defensive hit by losing corners Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.

More recently, the organization and Jackson were unable to come to an agreement on a contract extension for the QB which has created severe external (and undoubtedly internal) noise that could prove too distracting for a postseason run.

Regardless, with a healthy offense and defense this season, the Ravens will return to the playoffs and be right behind the Bills to win the AFC conference with recent additions to their secondary unit that will be significant to the team’s overall success.

5. Denver Broncos (11-6)

The Denver Broncos left football fans beside themselves when the blockbuster trade was announced in March 2022; the Seattle Seahawks were giving up Super Bowl champion and nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson in exchange for a handful of draft picks and players. 

Lacking in success or even consistent quarterback play since the retirement of Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, the Broncos needed a well-versed leader at the helm of it all; and Wilson will change that almost immediately. He will be able to spread the ball around to receivers Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and K. J. Hamler, while running back Javonte Williams will quite literally carry the load on the ground. 

With more offensive production, there will be far more responsibility taken off of the defense compared to recent years, but it will be a top-15 unit once again as they added highly-touted edge-rusher Randy Gregory in free agency, maintained safety Justin Simmons and have an emerging young cornerback in Patrick Surtain II.

Although the team was unable to defeat the former QB’s squad in his homecoming return, the squad will find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2015 – the same season they won the Super Bowl.

6. Las Vegas Raiders (11-6)

To round out the AFC predictions, the Las Vegas Raiders will beat out the Chiefs to give the AFC West three playoff teams, the most of any division this season. This was a tough decision, but I predict that the offseason additions made by the Raiders will lift them to new heights and return to the playoffs in 2022. 

First, the Raiders added arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL in Davante Adams while also adding coveted edge-rusher Chandler Jones and Josh McDaniels as the new head coach. The Adams trade was possibly the most impactful move by any team this past offseason, as QB Derek Carr and Adams are longtime friends and were college teammates – reconnecting a fierce dynamic duo. In their final season at Fresno State, the duo connected 131 times for 1,718 yards and 24 touchdowns. 

Finally, McDaniels was a very high-profile signing. Coming from the New England Patriots, he brings his offensive prowess and his coaching experience to a team that needs it; and although the team was unable to defeat the Chargers in a close week one matchup (24-19, Chargers), historically, coordinators under Patriots head coach Bill Belichick have had very unsuccessful coaching careers. Thus, McDaniels will break tradition and lead the Raiders to the playoffs.

Of course, there are 10 other teams in the conference that could shock the nation this year, but let’s not forget about the conference that holds three of the last five Super Bowl champions.

National Football Conference (NFC)

1. Los Angeles Rams (14-3)

The Los Angeles Rams come into the 2022 NFL season with big expectations to follow up their Super Bowl LVI win, even though the Vegas ads and the common majority vote was in favor of the Bills in the week one matchup.

The Rams field one of the most prolific offenses, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and the triple crown leader, Cooper Kupp who led the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. However, the offense lost a lot of key pieces in the offseason as Pro Bowl offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth retired in the offseason and wide-receiver Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t return in the offseason after tearing his ACL in the Super Bowl.

The defense brings back much of the same unit that they did last season, but this side of the ball also lost (Von) Miller and cornerback Darious Williams in free agency. However, the Rams did add perennial All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner to solidify the middle of the defense despite seeing some regression. 

With the additions and subtractions in mind, the Rams will cruise through the regular season and have the head-to-head tiebreaker with Tampa Bay to clinch the top seed in the NFC.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-3)

The Bucs should be considered the favorite to come out of the NFC even though they are predicted to be second to the Rams in this piece. 

Quarterback Tom Brady continues to be an ageless wonder, leading last season with 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdowns – stats he will likely reciprocate this season even with significant changes to the offensive line. However, one should note that for the first time in his career, Brady is now poised against a load management requirement that states he cannot participate in any (professional) football activity every Wednesday.

The team lost guard Ali Marpet to retirement, guard Alex Cappa signed elsewhere and center Ryan Jensen tore his ACL in training camp. Despite this, Brady still has a loaded receiver depth chart to target. Pro bowlers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin returned, with the addition of an underrated Russell Gage, on top of the signing of future Hall of Famer, Julio Jones. 

Even with their talented offense, the defense is the strength of this team. The steady play of Lavonte David and Devin White in the middle of the defense, and the return of a healthy secondary unit should bring the defense back to where it was in 2020 when the Bucs won the Super Bowl. 

The Bucs will tie the Rams with the best record in the NFC and get to face the weakest playoff team in the NFL.

3. Green Bay Packers (13-4)

When you think of a team that consistently qualifies for the playoffs every season, the Packers are always in there.

They were able to convince reigning back-to-back MVP, Aaron Rodgers, to re-sign to a five-year contract after a very dramatized off-season, and former Pro Bowl tackle David Bakhtiari should return from injury early in the season. At the same time, the offense lost their No. 1 receiver in Adams, and an openly frustrated Rodgers might have a difficult time putting together consistent offensive numbers. 

However, the team is also relies on its daunting defense, led by the likes of safety Adrian Amos, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, edge-rusher Rashan Gary and the return of Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander, to prevent opponents from putting points on the board.

The Packers also face the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, making them a likely favorite to win the NFC North and clinch the third playoff spot in the conference.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (11-6)

The Philadelphia Eagles had one of the best offseasons of any team in the league.

They started out by giving quarterback Jalen Hurts a top-tier receiver by trading for A.J. Brown, and followed with the addition of edge-rusher Haason Reddick, cornerback James Bradberry, safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and drafted defensive tackle Jordan Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean – both integral pieces of Georgia’s national championship defense.

This team won nine games and qualified for the playoffs in 2021. Assuming Hurts takes a big leap and the defensive additions help to make this unit one of the elite defenses in the conference, Philadelphia will be the team to win the NFC East and give themselves a home playoff game for the first time since 2017.

With a shootout against the Lions in their first time out (38-35), the team should do exactly that.

5. San Francisco 49ers (11-6)

The 49ers were (likely) one dropped interception away from making their second Super Bowl appearance in three years in 2021 against the Rams. They field one of the best all around teams in the NFL and they are the best team that will not win their division in the conference.

Their defense is one of the elite units, with players such as defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner anchoring a unit that was tied for the ninth best scoring defense and allowed the third fewest yards in 2021.

On offense, coach Kyle Shanahan has a new look offense led by sophomore quarterback Trey Lance. Wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk provide Lance with well-versed athleticism, while tight end George Kittle looks to return to All-Pro form. The 49ers have all the tools to make a deep playoff run again in 2022, but it relies on Lance being able to perform the way the 49ers front office hopes he will.

Even though Lance wasn’t able to lead his team over the Bears in week one (19-10), inclement weather and ill-experience at the quarterback position at the professional level should be two significant variables when analyzing the loss.

6. Dallas Cowboys (10-7)

The Cowboys lost a lot of pieces this offseason. 

Receivers Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson and offensive linemen La’el Collins and Connor Williams all found new homes in the league, and with the injury to quarterback Dak Prescott, players like running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb are likely going to have a tougher go at producing for the offense while their star quarterback is out for the next six weeks at least. 

The defense was a surprise in 2021, finishing seventh in scoring defense and forcing a league high 34 turnovers, including 11 interceptions from All-Pro Trevon Diggs. Reigning defensive rookie of the year Micah Parsons will have another outstanding season, but the defense will see major regression. Diggs’ interception numbers are inflated, as he was one of the worst cornerbacks in coverage last season, garnering a grade of 59.6 from Pro Football Focus in 2021. The Cowboys’ defense will be good enough to keep the lead late in games, but they will sneak into the playoffs as the six seed and will be tasked with facing a tough Green Bay Packer team in the Wild Card round.

I said I’d preview the top six teams of each conference, but I can’t forget about the hometown heroes that are making die-hard fans guardedly hopeful of what they can produce this season.

7. Detroit Lions (10-7)

I may get a lot of heat for this pick, but this is not a totally preposterous pick. The Detroit Lions were terrible in 2021, not winning a game until week 13 against the Minnesota Vikings. However, the Lions were 3-3 in their final six games.

Going into this season, the Lions have Jared Goff at quarterback, who didn’t necessarily stand out at the QB1 position compared to his predecessor (Stafford), but still gave fans some promising signs by putting up 3,245 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and a 91.5 passer rating. This team fields one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and the receiving core is electric as Amon-Ra St. Brown, D.J. Chark and Jameson Williams will be a force to be reckoned with. D’Andre Swift will also have a breakout season after having his previous season derailed by injury. 

However, the only way the Lions will make the playoffs is if the defense takes a huge step forward, especially with the promising showing against a tough Eagles team in week one. 

This offseason saw the Lions draft Michigan edge-rusher Aidan Hutchinson, Oklahoma State linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez and add a solid safety in DeShon Elliott. Defensive backs Tracy Walker III, Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah will also have to play incredibly well for this Lions team to make the playoffs.