The NFC has a more defined split than the AFC between the contenders and the rest of the pack, but there’s a lot of intrigue both at the top and the middle of the conference.
Philadelphia Eagles: 12-5
Two brilliant, lopsided trades this offseason catapult the Eagles to the top of the East. WR A.J. Brown and DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson bring serious upgrades at each spot in both skill and attitude—the latter of which is just as important. It enhances an already strong roster that is great along both lines and deeper than most, too. Jalen Hurts needs to iron some things out but has great talent at his disposal to do it with, and I’m a believer he will get it done. Landing CB James Bradberry helps veteran Darius Slay on the other side do what Slay does best. This is a very smartly assembled collection of talent that could very well be the league’s last team to lose a game. Nick Sirianni’s team can win in a number of different ways. Don’t be surprised if they’re playing deep into the postseason.
Dallas Cowboys: 9-8
In Dak Prescott we trust, because the talent around him is probably the weakest it’s been since Dak took over at QB. That’s especially true up front, where the Cowboys still have the potential to be good but aren’t apt to be so dominant. RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR CeeDee Lamb and TE Dalton Schultz can all get things rolling on offense. The key is to have more than one of them having a good game at the same time. I expect some regression from the two unbelievably impactful defensive talents from a year ago, CB Trevon Diggs and LB Micah Parsons. They’re both still good, but expecting repeats of their phenomenal 2021 campaigns is a fool’s errand. Can anyone else step up and fill the relative void there? It’ tough to see that, though the Cowboys are not without some promising young options. This is a high-floor team that should have a big say in the NFC wild-card picture.
New York Giants: 6-11
The bones of an improving Giants team are evident. Adding Kayvon Thibodeaux to the defensive front helps last year’s second-rounder Azeez Ojulari on the other side and the talented duo of Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence inside. The secondary lacks sizzle but has some potential. The same cannot be said at LB, and the ability to defend the middle of the field and the seams looks shaky at best. Those are words that often describe QB Daniel Jones, too. A healthy Saquon Barkley can only help, and adding rookie TE Daniel Bellinger is a smart fit to Jones’ arsenal. Getting anything out of free agent flop Kenny Golladay and unstable Kadarius Toney would be a blessing for the passing offense. There are too many “ifs” to feel comfortable in these Giants, but they are not without some better potential than the projected win total here.
Washington Commanders: 5-12
There are definitely things to like with Washington, but it’s hard to get past how overly reliant the defense is on all the first-round picks on the line to dominate the opponent. The fragility of the strategy is exposed with the best of those players, Chase Young, out for the first part of the season. Nothing against Cole Holcomb, Jamin Davis, Kamren Curl, William Jackson and the guys behind the line, but the defense is designed for the front to make them better, not for them to compensate for the front. An offense rolling the dice on Carson Wentz, who has been a colossal disappointment in the last two years, needs more reliability than what the Commanders are likely to get from the defense. I expect a few games where everything clicks and Washington blows out some teams—even some good ones. That potential is here. Finding it consistently with such a rigid roster construction will be difficult. I suspect Ron Rivera’s team will be among the most variable outcomes from week to week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 12-5
The top-end talent in Tampa remains among the league’s very best. Tom Brady throwing to Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and now Julio Jones is potentially awesome. The OL took a hit in the middle, and no Gronk at TE has some ripple effects. The deep stable of RBs might ease some pressure there. On defense, a young secondary built around Jamel Dean, Antoine Winfield Jr. and underrated Carlton Davis nicely frames a very swift LB corps. EDGE Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is a breakout pass rush candidate. Tackling was a problem a year ago and will need to be cleaned up. The Bucs aren’t quite the caliber of contender they have been, but make no mistake, this is a dangerous, veteran team that coach Todd Bowles can steer to a lot of success.
New Orleans Saints: 9-8
How the Saints play without Sean Payton on the sidelines is a big mystery, but successor Dennis Allen has a quietly talented team on both sides of the ball. Jameis Winston is a high-variance QB, but when he’s on his game and Alvin Kamara is rolling, whew, this is a fun team. Michael Thomas returning at WR with rookie Chris Olave joining the fold makes New Orleans diversely dangerous. The defense is built from the back to the front, but in grizzled veterans Demario Davis and Cam Jordan, the front does have some teeth. The special teams don’t inspire confidence. Nor does the depth pretty much anywhere outside of QB. I had the Saints at 10 wins but knocked it down a notch after the curious trade of playmaking DB Chauncey Garnder-Johnson recently. That kind of head-scratching financial decision could really backfire on a team that is capable of winning a playoff game.
Carolina Panthers: 5-12
Carolina is a difficult forecast. Head coach Matt Rhule in desperation mode is fascinatingly unpredictable. The Panthers are led by unpredictable QB Baker Mayfield handing the ball to Christian McCaffrey, he of the unreliable health status. Mayfield does have an impressive cadre of receiving weapons led by underappreciated WR D.J. Moore. The O-line is also unpredictable with enigmatic talents like RT Taylor Moton and new RG Austin Corbett, plus rookie LT Ikem Ekwonu. Getting last year’s first-round pick, CB Jaycee Horn, into the secondary builds up on the defensive strength in Charlotte. The pass rush just might work. Getting everything to come together against what looks to be a brutal schedule to start the year is a tough ask. Don’t sleep on Carolina, but don’t bet on great success either.
Atlanta Falcons: 3-14
The Matt Ryan era is over, leaving coach Arthur Smith with his feet firmly in a rebuild. In TE Kyle Pitts and rookie WR Drake London there are weapons for vet QB Marcus Mariota to try and resuscitate his career. Rookie QB Desmond Ridder looked ready in the preseason, so Smith will have to manage a potential QB controversy too. The OL is capable if the starting five stay healthy. The defense, not so much. Atlanta’s pass rush was pathetic in 2021, but GM Terry Fontenot did little to address it. Outside of CB A.J. Terrell, the secondary is a loose collection of castoffs from bad teams, and the secondary is better than the LBs. Atlanta should be able to score some points, but the Falcons are going to really struggle to outscore what their defense gives up most weeks.
Green Bay Packers: 14-3
How does a team that loses star WR Davante Adams get better? Defense. For all the focus on QB Aaron Rodgers and his weird offseason, the Packers are a team that just might have the league’s best defense, and nobody ever talks about it outside of Wisconsin. Green Bay is loaded at all three levels of the defense and even added some nice young reinforcements in rookies Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt. Jaire Alexander is a great cover CB, the safeties are excellent together and LB De’Vondre Campbell is a savvy Pro Bowler in the middle of the field. Rashan Gary, Kenny Clark, Preston Smith—it’s a well-conceived and deep line that can get after the QB and snuff out the run. Oh yeah, they’ve got that Rodgers guy on the other side of the ball. He’s got a great RB in Aaron Jones, a solid OL and a creative schemer in coach Matt LaFleur. It will be stunning if Green Bay doesn’t have the division sewn up by Week 13.
Minnesota Vikings: 8-9
A rookie head coach and GM take over a largely stagnant roster that underachieved to finish 8-9 a year ago. QB Kirk Cousins is effective at what he does, aided by dynamic WR Justin Jefferson emerging as one of the best weapons in the league. Versatile RB Dalvin Cook and a young OL featuring all first-round or second-round picks since 2018 form a strong, albeit slightly underperforming, offensive backbone. A leaky defense is basically running it back and adding only LB Za’Darius Smith and a pair of promising rookie DBs of consequence. How the enigmatically talented existing players adapt to new schemes and coaching voices is the difference between 10-11 wins or seven to eight victories. Anything out of that range seems wildly unlikely.
Detroit Lions: 6-11
“Hard Knocks” exposed Dan Campbell’s Lions to the broader world this summer, showcasing the coaching talent and rising potential in Detroit. Built around perhaps the NFL’s best offensive line, QB Jared Goff should be more confident and comfortable in rookie OC Ben Johnson’s more aggressive scheme. Adding WR DJ Chark and rookie Jameson Williams significantly aids the playmaking, though Williams is out for the first half of the year. The offense should at least be entertaining. The Lions’ rebuild lags behind on defense, though the unit should be better at rushing the passer with No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson and rising star Alim McNeill up front. A young secondary will have to make more plays on the ball and stay better coordinated than a year ago. Safety and LB depth is unproven, to be kind. Expect a lot of 34-30 types of games but for the Lions to be on the wrong end of more than they win.
Chicago Bears: 2-15
The promise of a new regime quickly loses luster when looking at the Bears roster. Expecting to win right away with a rookie head coach, rookie GM and developing young QB in Justin Fields is asking a lot. Doing it behind the patchwork OL and with the NFL’s weakest receiving corps is a bridge too far. I like Fields’ long-term potential, but new GM Ryan Poles didn’t do much to help him outside of fun rookie WR Velus Jones. The best defensive player is an off-ball LB in Roquan Smith who desperately wants out of Chicago. There is some promise in the young secondary with top draft choices Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon. The pass rush looks anemic outside of vet Robert Quinn, who produced an unreplicable career hiccup year in 2021 with 18.5 sacks—nearly the amount he produced in the previous 48 games. It figures to be a very long season in Chicago.
Los Angeles Rams: 12-5
The reigning Super Bowl champs bring back so many key pieces. Matthew Stafford at QB is the catalyst, and his aggressive style is a great fit in Sean McVay’s offense. Adding Allen Robinson to the receiving corps is a smart acquisition. The line plays better than it looks on paper, but it’s still a viable question mark. So is the RB spot, where Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson have to co-exist. Having playmakers on defense can cover up the occasional rough outing from Stafford. None is bigger than MVP candidate Aaron Donald in the middle. Bringing slot CB Troy HIll back should help the coverage. Even after adding Bobby Wagner, the LB corps is a question, as is the pass rush outside of Donald. Complacency after success can trip teams up, and it’s something to watch for no matter how absurd it might seem. This is a team that has the capability to repeat if the Rams can wear the crown and the bull’s-eye that comes with it well.
San Francisco 49ers: 9-8
The transition to Trey Lance at QB from Jimmy Garoppolo will be the dominant storyline, but the rest of the 49ers roster remains pretty darn solid. A strong defensive line and coordinated pass coverage behind it make them difficult to score upon, which keeps the game situations where the patented Shanahan ball control passing and zone running game fully in play. Their ability to attack with unconventional or unique weapons like Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and even FB Kyle Juszczyk is very difficult to defend. It makes life easier for Lance, too. The middle-of-field defense has some vulnerability. Forty-year-old kicker Robbie Gould doesn’t have the reliable booming range anymore, and that could come into play in close games. The margin for error in how the 49ers win is slim, but this is a self-aware team that does what it does very well.
Arizona Cardinals: 7-10
Arizona had a tale of two seasons in 2021. Unfortunately for coach Kliff Kingsbury, his customary late-season collapse looks difficult to escape from entering 2022. Kyler Murray is still a dangerous dual-threat QB, but the downgrade in weaponry over time is significant. WR A.J. Green wasn’t close to being what he once was, and adding oft-injured Marquise Brown and his tiny catch radius won’t help Murray either. Maybe throwing to nifty Rondale Moore beyond the line of scrimmage is a novel concept Kingsbury can embrace. The line—when healthy—cobbles together vets fairly well, and TE Zach Ertz should be better with a full year in Arizona. The defense is littered with players who have better name recognition than actual playing ability, most notably at LB. Safety Budda Baker is still great. If he gets more consistently reliable help in the secondary, these Cardinals will be a difficult foe. However, if Murray isn’t a legit MVP candidate and the revamped run game isn’t in the top 10, the downward spiral could steepen.
Seattle Seahawks: 5-12
A new era begins with the Russell Wilson trade to Denver. Pete Carroll’s Seahawks now look like a ball-control offense built around the best OL in Seattle in years and a deep backfield. Having DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett as downfield weapons is a perfect complement to that, but can the QB mess of Geno Smith and/or Drew Lock rise to the challenge? History says they won’t even come close. The defense is filled with castoffs from other teams and unproven youngsters outside of the safety tandem of Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams, which could be one of the NFL’s best. The specialists are reliable and the ground-heavy style of play can keep a lot of games within reach, but it’s hard to see much success in the first year without franchise legends Wilson and Bobby Wagner.
Playoff pick: Packers over the Eagles to advance to the Super Bowl