The start of a new NFL season represents opportunity. Opportunities for players to make a name for themselves or earn a big contract, opportunities for teams to make a Super Bowl run, and opportunities for analysts to make foolish and controversial opinions about what will happen in the months to come. It’s time to die on some hills with predictions for some of the tougher divisional races this year.
Losing Record for Broncos
The AFC West is easily the toughest division in the NFL right now. There’s firepower at the quarterback position from top to bottom, but even after trading a king’s ransom for Russell Wilson this offseason, Denver Broncos fans will be forced to relive the Tim Tebow era with a quarterback who is the fourth-most productive at the position in his division.
Since 2019, all four starters in the AFC West rank in the top 8 in Total Points/Attempt, although it should be noted Wilson was dealing with an injury last season:
|Quarterback||Total Points/Attempt (Rank)|
|Patrick Mahomes||0.25 (first)|
|Justin Herbert||0.21 (fourth)|
|Russell Wilson||0.19 (seventh)|
|Derek Carr||0.19 (eighth)|
But even if you aren’t convinced Las Vegas’ Derek Carr will be better than Wilson, the former Seahawks quarterback is still probably not enough to push the Broncos over the top. According to our WAR metric, he was only worth about two wins more than Drew Lock in 2020 when he was healthy. Back-of-the-envelope math tells us an extra two wins would have put Denver at 9-8 last year, which would not have been enough to win the division. On top of that, the Broncos go from having the sixth-easiest schedule in 2021 to the seventh-hardest in 2022, per our Total Points team strength model.
Broncos fans would likely point to having a new head coach as another upgrade, but it remains to be seen how much hiring Nathaniel Hackett, who has never called plays, will move the meter. Outside of Wilson, Denver’s biggest offseason additions were Randy Gregory, which is admittedly a nice get, and an undersized, Day 2 edge rusher from the University of Oklahoma, Nik Bonitto. This is probably a Wild Card team in any other division, but not this one.
Arizona Wins NFC West
The Arizona Cardinals are a thought experiment. Their head coach is a true Air Raid guy, the defense feels more like a breeding ground for unique skill sets than it does a cohesive unit, and the roster construction has resultantly been strange. For example: outside of DeAndre Hopkins and 11-year veteran A.J. Green, the receiving corps is an ensemble of guys who are 5-foot-9 or shorter that run a 4.32-second 40 yard dash or better (see: Marquise Brown, Andy Isabella, and Rondale Moore). This might be fitting, because quarterback Kyler Murray also runs a 4.3-something at 5-10, and this is his year.
Before a midseason ankle injury derailed what was a promising 2021 campaign, Murray was among the best passers in the NFL by pretty much any metric. Through the first eight weeks, he ranked first in SIS’ on-target percentage over expectation (+10.7%), second in passing Total Points/Play (0.31), second in completion percentage (72.7%), third in EPA/Play (0.2), and fourth in positive play rate (51.8%). But he didn’t look the same after returning in Week 13, and all those numbers dropped, although he still made his second Pro Bowl.
Of course, it might be difficult to win MVP if the Cardinals aren’t a division winner, and the defending Super Bowl champion Rams may have something to say about all this. However, Matthew Stafford, who has been dealing with an elbow injury, threw three interceptions in the Rams’ Week 1 loss to Buffalo. On top of that, Los Angeles lost quite a bit of talent in the spring, and cracks in the armor showed in its blowout loss to the Bills in Thursday night’s NFL Kickoff game.
This could be enough to push the Cards over the top after falling just one game short of the division title last year. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the San Francisco 49ers this season in light of the quarterback change, and the Seattle Seahawks have continued to decline the past few years. Assuming Murray’s ankle is fully healed and he can recapture his pre-injury form, he’s in a very good position to make a run at MVP this season.
Ravens Edge Bengals in AFC North
The Baltimore Ravens have the best playoff odds and highest Vegas win total among teams in the division, but it certainly feels like the public is very high on the Cincinnati Bengals. And while it might be surprising if Cincinnati missed the playoffs this year, it took some luck to make the Super Bowl last year, whereas Baltimore was quite unlucky.
For example, the Ravens ranked last in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric (191.2), whereas Cincinnati was relatively unbitten by the injury bug (63.2). The Bengals also had the fifth-fewest fumbles in the league and recovered them at a rate of about 60%. Joe Burrow also ranked seventh in the league in EPA/Attempt under pressure, and helmed an offense that went from one of the worst deep passing attacks of the SIS era in 2020 (-0.28/Attempt) to one of the best in 2021 (0.70 EPA/Attempt). These things are typically not sticky year to year, so it’s fair to expect some regression to the mean for the Bengals.
The Ravens will face the fourth-easiest schedule this year per our aforementioned SOS metric, and the Bengals’ reward for making it to the Super Bowl is the ninth-toughest schedule. This will be a close divisional race, but I’m betting that some regression for both teams will give Baltimore a slight edge over its rivals this season.
Bryce Rossler contributed to this report.