Presenting: five teams who’ll take a step back in the win column from 2021, and five who’ll reverse their fortunes in a more favorable way.
The science was rigorous. Decisions were made based on QB quality, strength of schedule, regression, crystal balls, and vibes. Sometimes just vibes. So we’re definitely in “entertainment purposes only” territory here. Unless you wager actual money based on this column, and win actual money. Then we can discuss my commission.
Our Five Overachievers
These assured winners don’t have to be Super Bowl contenders or anything. Just teams who were a little down on their luck in 2021 or employ elite talent at key positions. Or both! Why not both?
The Baltimore Ravens (went 8-9)
Easiest call of the year. Barring a series of catastrophic injuries or a continuation of the worst luck in the league, Baltimore will climb. They almost have to.
The Ravens started last season 8-3, but then lost six straight — five of those by a combined eight points. Yes, they lost five times by a single score split five ways. They became the first NFL team to lose four games by two points or less in a month’s time. And we thought watching the Seattle Seahawks was hard.
Tyler Huntley, not Lamar Jackson, was the starting quarterback for four of the defeats, which came on a failed two-point conversion in the final minute, a fourth-down conversion by the Los Angeles Rams in the final minute, an error-filled fourth quarter including a doomed drive in the final minute, and an overtime FG against the Pittsburgh Steelers, not in the final minute, but with two minutes on the clock.
Don’t overthink this. The Ravens can’t get any unluckier. Theoretically.
The Los Angeles Chargers (went 10-7)
Justin Herbert may never be a top 2 QB because Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen exist, but he could be a top 3 once Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady call it quits or decline. (Any day now, guys.)
Justin Herbert: Lowest turnover-worthy play rate along ALL QBs pic.twitter.com/7SbdFY0lHu— PFF (@PFF) January 13, 2022
The Chargers will likely be favored in seven of their first eight games, with the lone exception being when they travel to take on the Kansas City Chiefs. Wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them 6-1 at Halloween, hit the bye, then annihilate the Atlanta Falcons at home. From that point you split the remaining games and that’s 11 or more wins.
My only concern would be the Chargers finishing 29th in scoring defense last year. Of course, if you score enough points, defense begins to matter a lot less. Marshawn Lynch has thoughts on the process.
Da Bears (went 6-11)
I’m a giant believer in Chicago Bears second year quarterback Justin Fields, which is why it was so kind of erstwhile Field Gulls contributor Sam Gold to back me up.
WATCH! After looking at a bunch of Justin Fields tape, I think he's in line to having a great second year season. Should #Bears fans have hope? I think so!— Samuel Gold (@SamuelRGold) September 7, 2022
Talked about Fields' improvements + play-calling changes from last year to this.
YouTube link:https://t.co/JlYdgmMnqS pic.twitter.com/Na0Wf2gDUD
If your QB is good, you almost automatically exceed six wins. The eighth-easiest schedule awaits them. I’m betting Fields is good and the schedule stays favorable.
The Dallas Cowboys (went 12-5)
More than 12 games? Yeah. I’m predicting the Boys will be the NFC’s top seed. They check all the boxes:
- already good roster
- below average division containing two sorry franchises
- locked-up franchise QB entering his prime
- tenacious defense led by savvy DC (hi Dan Quinn!)
- easiest schedule in the league, at .462
Don’t think 14 wins is at all out of the question. 12 sounds disappointing. Vegas has Dallas pegged at about 20-1 to win the Super Bowl, with anywhere from +2000 to +2200 lines. Just saying.
Cincinnati Bengals (went 10-7)
After Cincinnati roared to the Super Bowl, only to lose it in heartbreaking fashion to an unknown team, analysts were quick to anoint Joe Burrow as the Next Big Thing. (Alongside Herbert.) The Bengals spent the offseason addressing their biggest roster hole — offensive line — with two key acquisitions and didn’t lose anybody significant. A fast start while the Cleveland Browns and Steelers spin their wheels ought to allow Cincy to coast to 11 wins. Even if luck goes against them, or if, improbably, Evan McPherson misses a clutch kick.
The Las Vegas Raiders (went 10-7)
A) Toughest division in football; B) worst QB in the division, objectively; C) 7-2 in one score games; D) were -9 in turnovers; E) posted a -65 point differential; F) the seventh-hardest schedule awaits them.
The deck is stacked against Vegas. Maybe the house doesn’t always win.
I would be legitimately shocked if the Raiders won 10 games again. Luck-based results tend to not last from year to year.
The San Francisco 49ers (went 10-7)
I am a long-term believer in Trey Lance. Has the tools, the mentality, the system, the supporting cast. What he doesn’t have is any type of track record. He wasn’t good in 2021, and he won’t be good to start 2022. He will be fine in 2023. Which is a different year.
I love watching George Kittle play. He’s missed 13 games in the last three seasons. I love watching Deebo Samuel play. Probably my favorite non-Seahawk in the league. He won’t score 14 touchdowns or lead the league in yards per reception again. That Niners offense is going to lay some eggs. Not a full carton, but enough to make an hearty omelette.
The SF defensive line has been the team’s great strength — truly its greatest strength — but OC’s eventually figure out how to scheme around people like Nick Bosa, and this will be the year Bosa has to adjust. We’ll see how that works out. Will he transcend like Aaron Donald or slump somewhat from a standout season?
Kyle Shanahan is a fine coach with recent appearances in the SB and NFCCG but he’s still 39-42 lifetime. Let’s not act like he’s Sean McVay, an actual genius.
The New Orleans Saints (9-8)
Jameis Winston is on this graphic:
PFF’s Big-Time Throw Rate vs. Turnover-Worthy plays.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) February 21, 2022
Ideally, you’d want to be in the top left, but definitely not in the bottom right. pic.twitter.com/eJmV4LEMHA
But he’s not the logo in the bottom right. He’s in the best quadrant! I find this hard to believe. I had to check twice, then again.
In 2021, His 8.7 TD rate was twice his career norm and his 1.9 INT rate was half his career norm. Unless Jameis Winston is suddenly a different person, he has some serious regression awaiting him. Andy Dalton and Taysom Hill are the backups. They are on the graphic. And not in particularly good places. In a quarterback-driven league (RIP John Clayton) you need a quarterback who takes care of the ball or one who excels as a distributor and gets out of the way. The Saints don’t have either of those.
New Orleans also faces the seventh-hardest schedule. They won’t finish behind the train-wreck Panthers, but they could.
Steelers (went 9-7-1)
I’m of the opinion that the AFC North is the second-toughest division in football. Would you enter that fray with Mitchell Trubisky as your QB1? Not when in full possession of your faculties, you would not.
The Steelers were 14th in yards/play allowed and 17th in expected points allowed. And 17th in advanced special team rankings. This is an average defense, flanked by average specialists, featuring an average offense, led by a below-average quarterback. If anything at all goes wrong, they’ll be below average.
Bright spot: George Pickens is gonna light it up.
New York Jets (went 4-13)
You’d have to be crazy to pick a 4-win team to fail to match its win total. Any team. I admit this is something of a spicy take.
Wilson is on the bad part of the graphic again. Robert Saleh is known for his defensive acumen but 504 points allowed is 47 more than the second-most in franchise history... which happened two years ago. There’s not enough talent in Jersey, unless the additional draft picks they got from some desperate franchise work out very quickly, and that’s not likely.
The Jets drew the AFCN and NFCN, which are relatively strong-looking top to bottom. Add 1-5 in the division to 1-7 in the North matchups and suddenly they’re 2-12 and four wins looks improbable. Even when the Seahawks are on your schedule.
Plus it’s the Jets. Nothing is beneath them.
BONUS SECTION 1: The NFC West
“You coward, you barely touched the division that matters most.”
I hear you. Fine.
NFCW Final standings
Rams 11-6 (down 1 win)
Cardinals 9-8 (down 2 wins)
49ers 8-8-1 (down 1.5 wins)
Seahawks 5-11-1 (also down 1.5 wins)
The current NFC West is substantially worse from a QBing standpoint. Kyler Murray looks like he’s already peaked, Lance will struggle and might not last the year, Matthew Stafford’s volatility will eventually catch up with him, and we’re well acquainted with the changes under center in Seattle. Without an elite quarterback it’s unlikely you’ll win any more than ten games. And I do not believe there’s a top 10 signalcaller in the entire division.
BONUS SECTION 2: The Denver Broncos?
Let’s write. The Raiders are destined to finish last in the AFC West at 8-9, but they’ll have company down there — the 8-9 Broncos, who’ll finish in third after an elaborate series of tie-breakers.
That’s a one-game improvement from 7-10 for Denver, but why still under .500? Well, it’ll take R.C. Wilson a good six weeks to settle in with his receivers, who are talented but also aren’t Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin, and thus cannot read his mind. It’s going to take a sublime effort by the Broncos defense to hold the Chargers and Chiefs under 35 points in any of the four games they play. Mark Denver down for 2-4 in the division, 2-2 against the NFCW, and a respectable 4-3 in their other seven.
Wilson left the perennially toughest division in football for the new toughest division in football. They’re not going to make the playoffs, or even win nine games. It’s going to be an interesting offseason in the Mile High City. Stock up on popcorn.