By Cal Braid
The NFL went out in style last winter. Though the Bengals/Rams Super Bowl wasn’t a true classic, the month preceding it was unprecedented in its thrill-a-minute entertainment value. There was the Wild Card play-in game in Week 18 where the Chargers and Raiders played into overtime with the hint that the two teams would play for a tie if the game played out evenly. A tie would’ve escorted both teams into the playoffs, but a win by either would knock the one other out. Improbably, Chargers pushed the game into overtime, but the Raiders did not play for the tie and won 35-32.
The Divisional Round on Jan. 22 and 23 launched the excitement into the stratosphere, with three games decided by three points. The fourth game concluded with a six-point OT win by the Chiefs over the Bills, in a game that was breathtaking.
Other highlights and lowlights of the season included:
The Chiefs, who looked thoroughly disoriented started the season at 3-4 before rolling out the red carpet for eight straight wins and a 12-5 record. In the NBC broadcast, Tony Romo called the AFC championship “the Kansas City Invitational” as the Chiefs hosted the title game for the fourth straight year.
The Packers, who emerged from an offseason of Aaron Rodgers retirement drama. Rodgers returned for Week 1 and the Pack laid an egg, losing 38-3 to the Saints. The team lost the ‘immunized’ Rodgers and Davante Adams each for a game to COVID, but rolled on to another superb regular season. Rodgers won the MVP again, and then the Packers promptly lost a freezing-cold home playoff game to a California team. A miserable start and finish to their season.
The Titans grabbed a No. 1 seed in the AFC despite an uneven year. Derrick Henry missed a lot of playing time, and the wide receiver duo of Julio Jones and A.J. Brown did not pay off.
The Raiders had an ugly season—every which way except in the win-loss column. How they survived their coaching scandal (Gruden) and player tragedy (Ruggs) is mind-blowing.
Pittsburgh squeaked into the playoffs despite Big Ben lumbering around and looking like Paul Bunyan on worker’s comp.
And then the unmentionables: Deshaun Watson and Urban Meyer. Respected one year, a total disgrace the next. Except Watson was awarded a $230 million contract with a new team for his troubles. What a mess.
Let’s look at this year, though. Who are the sleepers and who are the shoo-ins? Who’s due for a regression?
The Vikings. Pencil them in for 10 or more wins and a contender for the division title in the NFC north. The Vikings underachieved last year, and the Packers are not a shoo-in for another 13-win season.
The Saints. What’s not to like except…ah, yes, the QB. If Jameis Winston throws 30 TDs like he did in his final year with the Bucs, look out. If Michael Thomas returns to form, he’s a game-changer. Two big ifs. Their defense is good, though. Maybe they’ll put the Bucs on notice in the NFC south.
The Eagles. They look good on paper. Actually, both Pennsylvania teams seem to have knack for staying solid without ever sinking into the dreaded ‘rebuild’ mode.
The Raiders. They made the playoffs last year and are better because they wooed WR Davante Adams from Green Bay. Adams is the receiver that Aaron Rodgers called “the best player I’ve ever been around.” Plus, there must be some serious character in that locker room to have weathered last year’s two vicious setbacks. Props to last year’s interim coach Rich Bisaccia, who is inexplicably no longer with the team this year. That’s a head scratcher.
The Buccaneers. Obviously. They’ll be better than the Rams, Packers, 49ers, and everyone else in the NFC.
The Bills. Yes, but…they’d better use running backs for those rushing yards. If Josh Allen’s still running around like a wild buffalo, it’s only a matter of time until a knee, ankle, or shoulder gets hurt, and then their hopes fall off a cliff.
The Packers. Two possible outcomes, they get over the hump and back to the SB, or these past three NFC title games were their peak, and the window of opportunity starts to close on them.
The Chargers. On paper they look superb, which usually a setup for underachieving, but they won’t. They’ll be good.
The Rams. Still solid. They’re a very complete team, for at least one more year. If Matt Stafford’s deep ball returns to form, even better. Those lame-duck turnover wobblers that he was throwing up during the latter part of 2021 will haunt them and then kill them in a big game eventually.
The Regression Camp:
The Chiefs. If you had to wager on where KC will place in the AFC West, what would your guess be? Third? Fourth? That division will not send all four of its teams to the playoffs. This team showed glaring weaknesses throughout the year in 2021. They are the not AFC’s elite this year.
The Bengals. They’re an NBA team, with two superstar players in Burrow and Chase. This isn’t the NBA, and come to think of it, are those two even established superstars yet? Let’s give it another year.
The Cowboys. What a weird team. They’ve been ‘on the verge’ for years, yet nothing. They could explode and win a championship, but let’s keep our hopes nonexistent.
The 49ers. Maybe Trey Lance is Colin Kaepernick without the anthem kneel-downs. Maybe he’s lightning in a bottle. Maybe he’s Jimmy G. with twice as many turnovers.
The Browns. This team is revolving door. Players enter smiling and exit cursing.
Here’s how the playoffs could shake out. Seven teams from each conference with the top seed as a bye.
AFC: 1. Chargers 2. Bills 3. Ravens 4. Colts 5. Raiders 6. Bengals 7. Broncos (Did I just exclude the Chiefs?)
NFC: 1. Bucs 2. Eagles 3. Rams 4. Vikings 5. Packers 6. Saints 7. 49ers
After that, it’s a free for all. The one and done playoff format in football is maddening. Injuries, missed field goals, weird calls, bad weather, and scandals will play out as they always do. The football is still oblong, and that means it’ll take a few weird bounces along the way. In other words, your best guess is just a guess.
Rather than make a pick outright, we’ll opt for a short list of the three best possible Super Bowls:
The NFL season kicks off on Sept. 8 at 6:20 p.m. with the Bills @ Rams.