Monday, June 27, 2022

2022 NFL season: Ranking the most vulnerable division winners, from shaky Bengals to sturdy Buccaneers

Year after year, the NFL playoff picture looks different. Sounds obvious, but all too often, we assume the previous season’s contenders will be back in the mix. In reality, it’s all unpredictable — division winners, wild-card contenders, Super Bowl favorites. With that said, we decided to rank each of 2021’s first-place teams from most to least vulnerable entering the 2021 campaign.

Who’s most likely to keep their division crown? Who’s most likely to lose it? Here’s our rundown, from shakiest to sturdiest:

1. Bengals (AFC North)

2021 record: 10-7 | Division title streak: 1 season

It’s not that we’re down on the Bengals. Joe Burrow and their play-makers are the real deal, and they wisely addressed the O-line. The defense is also underrated. But they’ve got a tough schedule with an absolutely brutal finish (their final eight are against projected playoff teams), and the division is always tight. It’d be a surprise if at least two of their rivals didn’t challenge for the title; the Ravens should be much healthier, the Steelers are never losers under Mike Tomlin, and the Browns still have lots of talent.

2. Cowboys (NFC East)

2021 record: 12-5 | Division title streak: 1 season

When’s the last time Dallas delivered on hype? The answer is the 1990s, which is the last time they posted back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins. The NFC East, meanwhile, hasn’t had a repeat champion since 2001-2004. The Giants are squarely in transition, and the Commanders are still volatile with Carson Wentz now under center, but the Eagles look primed to take a leap, and the Cowboys, despite play-makers on both sides, still have question marks up front, where it matters most.

3. Titans (AFC South)

2021 record: 12-5 | Division title streak: 2 seasons

Tennessee is a perfect near-middleman here. Mike Vrabel’s squad is always tough, and they’re still built to win late in the year, with Derrick Henry back healthy. Malik Willis‘ entry at QB could also spark something under center, either as motivation to Ryan Tannehill or as a more electric successor. And then there’s the South, which could have another challenger in the Matt Ryan-led Colts but also hosts the rebuilding Jaguars and hapless Texans. The concern is they’ve already reached their ceiling.

4. Chiefs (AFC West)

2021 record: 12-5 | Division title streak: 6 seasons

Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes kind of feel like Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in that as long as they’re together in Kansas City, it feels foolish to bet against a division title; the Chiefs have won at least 10 games in seven straight seasons. But if you’re ever gonna forecast a slight step back, why not now? Their schedule is tough, they’ll be adapting post-Tyreek Hill, and even if the new-look Raiders don’t meet expectations, the Broncos and Chargers should be legitimate rivals considering their star QBs.

5. Rams (NFC West)

2021 record: 12-5 | Division title streak: 1 season

Typically, the West is pretty wide open, but there are bigger questions than usual with all three rivals: the Cardinals have a brutal schedule, not to mention some underlying QB drama; the 49ers may be turning the keys to the unproven Trey Lance; and the Seahawks are set to ask Geno Smith and/or Drew Lock to replace Russell Wilson. It’s the Rams’ division if they want it, as long as Matthew Stafford plays smart and leans on his All-Pro help during their tough stretches.

6. Packers (NFC North)

2021 record: 13-4 | Division title streak: 3 seasons

It’s right to be a little skeptical of their chances to go the distance now that Davante Adams is gone and Aaron Rodgers will theoretically have to work a little harder to score points at will. But he and Matt LaFleur haven’t won fewer than 13 games in a season since teaming up, and their defense has more upside. Perhaps more importantly, the Bears and Lions are on track to be little more than pushovers. Only the Vikings look like a potential threat, and they’re adjusting to an entirely new staff.

7. Bills (AFC East)

2021 record: 11-6 | Division title streak: 2 seasons

The Josh Allen effect. QBs don’t sway every division race, but in this case, they do. Allen plus Buffalo’s playoff-ready supporting cast is just that much more explosive than anything in Miami, New England and New York. Sean McDermott’s defense should also be just as stingy. That doesn’t mean the Dolphins or Jets won’t be better, or that Belichick’s Patriots won’t play spoiler. But the Bills have flirted with true title contention for several seasons now, and their lineup remains lethal.

8. Buccaneers (NFC South)

2021 record: 13-4 | Division title streak: 1 season

Look no further than the man under center. Ever since Tom Brady returned from “retirement,” they became the story of the NFC, if not the NFL. The transition from Bruce Arians to Todd Bowles on the sidelines is an underrated X-factor, but Brady’s still in his prime at 44, and his weaponry remains elite. Meanwhile, the Saints are acting like they’re still in contention but have questions at QB and coach, the Panthers are in the same boat, and the Falcons may have the league’s worst roster.

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