NFL Analysis

NFL Division Rankings Heading into 2022

NFL Division Rankings Heading into 2022

With training camp approaching rapidly, the 2022 NFL season is nearly among us. Each division brings a unique combination of teams with varying levels of intrigue. Below, the eight NFL divisions have been ranked, primarily based on the following criteria: the strength of the projected top teams, the vulnerability of the projected bottom teams, and the overall competitiveness of the division.

  1. AFC West

Although some of the rankings below can be debated, this one shouldn’t leave any room for discussion. In 2021, Kansas City and Las Vegas each made the postseason, the latter narrowly topping the division-rival Chargers to sneak into the playoffs. The division has more stars than last year, as Los Angeles added Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson while the Raiders landed Davante Adams and Chandler Jones.

Possibly the most notable of all is signal-caller Russell Wilson, being paired with head coach Nathaniel Hackett. With these new additions, Denver looks primed for a successful 2022 campaign. All of the quarterbacks are in the top fifteen in the league, and Derek Carr has been deemed a dark-horse MVP candidate. Despite being unlikely, there is a scenario in which every AFC West team qualifies for the postseason, a new possibility with the expansion of the playoffs.

This division might be the most competitive in 2022, and this dynamic could affect the approach of its teams. Hugh Millen, a former third-round selection by the Rams, thinks this could bring an additional level of intensity. “It might be easier in [the AFC West] to… subconsciously waive the white flag and not grind, so that’s always a battle for a team. The strength of the division might set in…. If you were in a weaker division, you might say ‘let’s just keep chopping wood here… and it’ll work out in the end.’ So there’s some psychology to being in that division.”

Leadership and coaching may be the difference between choosing resiliency and cracking under pressure, and this division will push each team to its limits.

  1. NFC West

The other group out west takes the second spot, seeing three of its members qualify for the postseason last year. The Rams look to be atop the division for a second-consecutive year, hungry for more after re-signing one of the best football players in Aaron Donald.

Both the 49ers and Cardinals may finish above .500 this season, and San Francisco is hoping to return to its third NFC Championship game in four years. The NFC West had a tremendous showing in 2021, combining for the most wins for a single division with 40. 

Mike Solari, a longtime NFL offensive line coach who most recently spent time with the Seahawks, believes coaching to be a key facet of this success, beginning in Los Angeles. “The Rams have an outstanding coaching staff… [seen] from the assistants leaving for head coaching jobs, that says enough about the job McVay does there.”

Moving on to San Francisco, he remarked, “Kyle [Shanahan], just like his father… does a great job with the run game… [which] complements the passing game.” In regards to the Cardinals, Solari said, “[Kliff] Kingsbury is a fine coach and I believe he’s getting better. Also, they are getting better personnel, [especially] with the linemen.” Ending with Seattle, he thinks “Pete [Carroll] does a very good job… John Schneider and Pete work masterfully together.”

This group of teams looks to have an excellent combination of top-tier talent and overall competitiveness, helping edge out the ensuing division.

  1. AFC North

After a surprising year in the division, seeing the Bengals jump from worst to first and the Steelers miraculously sneak into the playoffs, there is reason for intrigue. The Ravens were ravaged by injuries in 2021, leaving the possibility for them to follow a similar path as the Bengals to win the division. After finishing fourth in the group last year, Baltimore is the current favorite to finish first in the AFC North.

The Browns look to have one of the most talented rosters in the league, yet much of their success hinges on who starts at quarterback. The reigning AFC-Champion Cincinnati Bengals are as strong as any other team after improving their offensive line during the offseason. Although some believe their Super Bowl run was a fluke, Joe Burrow and co. are set on proving this narrative false. Lastly, the Steelers have never faltered under Mike Tomlin, avoiding a losing record since 2003.

When asked about his prediction for who may emerge from the group, Hugh Millen chose the defending AFC Champions. “I’m a huge Burrow fan, so I’m inclined to think they’re going to be a real contestant in the AFC, but it is possible they slip.”

Matching a Super Bowl run in successive years is arduous, and there are rational arguments to be made as to why another team may take the title. Thus, the race to the crown should be an exciting one given the considerable talent in the division.

  1. AFC East

The power in the AFC East looks to have shifted, seeing the Bills win consecutive division titles the past two seasons. Previously, the Patriots claimed that honor in 16 of 17 years, spanning from 2003 until 2019. Buffalo is the betting favorite to win Super Bowl LVII, and the team appears in a strong position to extend its division-winning streak to three seasons.

The remaining teams of the group are trending in all sorts of directions, but the race for second place is one most are overlooking. Miami’s offensive overhaul brings in the likes of Tyreek Hill, Terron Armstead, Chase Edmonds, and head coach Mike McDaniel. New England qualified for the postseason before bowing out to the aforementioned Buffalo Bills in a 30-point thumping, but Bill Belichick’s Patriots have only finished with a losing record once since 2003.

But, don’t forget about the New York Jets. The team added undeniable talent in All-Pro Laken Tomlinson, D.J. Reed, and by acing the first two rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Millen commented about the race for runner-up in the division, saying “that battle for the second spot could be interesting.” He brought up a couple of competing teams, beginning with Miami. “I think the Dolphins really have a chance to come on…. I haven’t given up on Tua Tagovailoa… [especially with] the addition of Tyreek Hill. I think [Hill] is the most breathtaking player in the league.”

Moving on to New England, Millen is intrigued by the Patriots and Bills matchup. “It’s a really compelling case study to watch Mac Jones against Josh Allen, and he may out-quarterback [Allen]. But if he does, he’s bringing a butter knife to a gunfight [based on] his physical attributes.”

Despite the top spot in the division seeming to be all but decided, much intrigue is dispersed among the remaining three franchises.

  1. NFC North

One of the reasons the NFC North sits fifth in the rankings is the Green Bay Packers and their three-year stretch of winning 13 games under Mike LaFleur. Back-to-back MVP Aaron Rodgers is playing at an elite level, and despite the team not winning the NFC in over a decade, Green Bay has all the pieces to do so in 2022.

Mike Solari worked with the Packers’ offensive line in 2015, the unit tasked with protecting the future first-ballot Hall of Fame signal-caller. “They’re always going to be right there in the hunt because of Aaron Rodgers… he has such great awareness on the field as the quarterback. He’s got such a great feel for what the defense is trying to do to stop him. [He’s] just so bright… and he really is special.”

Minnesota could try to give the Packers a run for their money if new coach Kevin O’Connell elevates the Vikings offense. Chicago has a new head coach and Detroit will want to improve in Dan Campbell’s second season at the helm, but both of these teams figure to finish among the bottom two spots in the division.

The newness among the division’s head coaches factors in an element of unpredictability to the group, as Solari points out. “The preparation for them… is kind of a big question mark…. Sometimes you don’t start off as fast as you’d like to… [and] as new head coaches… a high part of execution is the communication in a game environment.”

Only time will tell how well these first-time head coaches will fare in their communication. Though the winner of the group looks to be a shoo-in, the other teams help slot the division in the top five.

  1. NFC South

The highlight of the offseason in the NFC South was Tom Brady announcing his return to Tampa Bay. Although this news solidifies the Bucs as the favorite to finish first in the group, this also diminishes the competitiveness of the division. Likely to come in second behind the Buccaneers are the Saints, having had a chaotic offseason.

New Orleans re-signed Jameis Winston, acquired safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye, added receivers Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave, lost Terron Armstead, and filled their head coaching vacancy with Dennis Allen. These moves may net a positive on paper, but gaining familiarity and camaraderie may compromise immediate success on the field.

After these two teams, the remaining organizations have significantly more question marks. Carolina recently traded for Baker Mayfield, but the team needs to perform up to par soon; otherwise, Matt Rhule could be shown the door. Lastly, Atlanta’s defense appears to have multiple weaknesses, and its offense will attempt to replace the production of Matt Ryan and Calvin Ridley.

The Falcons also may regress based on win total since they narrowly came away with each of their victories, outscoring their opponents by one possession in each win. There are too many unknowns to rank the group any higher, but it contains enough talent to place higher than the following two divisions.

  1. NFC East

The NFC East should be a relatively competitive division in 2022, but its lack of upper-echelon play justifies the seventh-place ranking. Dallas appeared strong for most of the 2021 regular season but fell short at home in their Wild Card game.

Failing to improve their roster much, if at all, leaves the door open for Philadelphia to steal the division title from them. Behind a potent rushing attack and the addition of A.J. Brown, the Eagles will attempt to assert themselves as an elite offensive threat. Though Washington nabbed Carson Wentz from Indianapolis and New York scooped up Brian Daboll and Joe Schoen, both organizations likely will be a step below the others in the upcoming year.

Before Mike Solari spent his second stint in Seattle, he coached the offensive line for the Giants. He agrees that competitiveness is what the NFC East is all about, and these rivalries have an understandable derivation. “[It’s] the history, how far back these teams go. Also, the location being so close, with Philadelphia, Washington, and New York, you can take a train to go to those games. And Dallas has always just been the rivalry because of ‘America’s Team’ and obviously Tom Landry and everything they put together there.”

Even though the NFC East has just two teams that look primed to qualify for the postseason, the direction of Washington and New York places the group ahead of the remaining division.

  1. AFC South

Despite the top seed in the AFC coming from this division in 2021, this group of four appears to be the weakest of the eight by a considerable margin. The Titans surprisingly didn’t falter following the mid-season injury to star running back Derrick Henry last season, but the team traded away Ryan Tannehill’s best receiver in A.J. Brown.

With the possibility of a less explosive offense and a cornerback room in need of improvement, Tennessee may win significantly fewer contests in 2022. The Colts will look to win the AFC South for the first time since 2014, and Matt Ryan paired with the Indianapolis defense could achieve this goal.

Aside from these two teams who may not make much noise come playoff time, the Texans and Jaguars have been historically poor the past two seasons. Since 2020, these franchises have combined for 12 wins, the fewest wins among two division foes during that span. Although both franchises hired new head coaches during the offseason, moving the needle substantially may take more than one season.

The absence of Super Bowl contending teams and the lack of competitiveness towards the bottom of the group result in the AFC South finishing last among the eight NFL divisions.

Conclusion

Since grading the divisions is an inexact science, it will be difficult to evaluate the accuracy of these rankings come the winter of 2023. Additionally, the volatility of team performance in successive seasons often leads to unexpected results.

Any team can beat another on a given Sunday, the epitome of the National Football League. Hugh Millen said it best: “the only thing that would surprise me is if I’m not surprised in February.”

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