The NFC was extremely top-heavy last year, with four teams winning 12 games and six teams winning 10 games in the regular season. The postseason turned out to be unpredictable, as the No. 4 seed Los Angeles Rams and the No. 6 seed San Francisco 49ers advanced to the conference championship game.
Los Angeles emerged victorious in the conference and ended up winning the Super Bowl, establishing the Rams as the favorites in a conference featuring Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady (who decided to unretire this offseason). The Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals are intriguing playoff teams from last season, while the 49ers are looking to make their third NFC Championship Game appearance in four years with a new quarterback in Trey Lance.
The Philadelphia Eagles significantly improved this offseason, looking to make a playoff run of their own. The New Orleans Saints are banking on a healthy Jameis Winston and a great defense to get back to the playoffs. The rest of the conference includes teams that can reach the postseason — but a lot of things have to go right.
For any NFC team to make the playoffs, players have to play above and beyond their impressive talent level — an MVP-type performance.
Predicting the MVP of each NFC team in 2022 is going to be difficult, but it’s time to take a look. This is the most valuable player for each NFC team’s success this year.
Note: Every team could go quarterback, but let’s stay away from stating the obvious for every single franchise (most teams need the quarterback to play well to win games, but there are more valuable players on the roster). We’ll only go QB for a select few.
As Murray goes, so do the Cardinals. Arizona was 9-5 in the 14 games he started last year, as he threw for 3,787 yards with 24 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. Murray completed a career-high 69.2% of his passes, and his 100.6 rating was also a career best. He rushed for 423 yards and five touchdowns, low numbers for a player who had 1,363 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in his first two years.
The Cardinals were 8-0 when Murray posted a 100 passer rating last year and 7-0 when he threw for two touchdowns. Murray was limited with his legs, but still was able to win games with his arm. If Murray throws well, the Cardinals are going to win games and make a deep playoff run.
The Falcons aren’t expected to win a lot of games in 2022. If they do win more than expected, Pitts will play a huge role in their success.
Pitts finished with 68 catches for 1,026 yards and a touchdown in a Pro Bowl season last year — clearly the top pass catcher in an offense that was not strong in that area outside of Calvin Ridley. With Ridley suspended, Pitts will be relied on to carry an offense that has rookie Drake London, newcomer Bryan Edwards, and an uncertain quarterback situation with Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder.
Atlanta was 3-0 when Pitts had 100 yards receiving and 4-1 when he had five receptions. That appears to be the ticket to the Falcons surprising teams in 2022, which is an awful lot of pressure for the second-year player (even if Pitts is up to the task).
Injuries have prevented McCaffrey from being the best running back in the NFL — and the Panthers from winning games. McCaffrey has played in just 10 games since signing a four-year, $64 million contract extension with the Panthers in April of 2020, recording 158 carries for 667 yards and six rushing touchdowns with 54 receptions for 492 yards and two touchdowns. McCaffrey has averaged 115.9 yards from scrimmage since signing the deal.
The Panthers are just 6-17 in the 23 games McCaffrey’s missed over the last two seasons. Carolina was 4-3 with McCaffrey in the lineup last year despite having the worst quarterback play in the league with Sam Darnold and Cam Newton.
Bottom line, the Panthers are a competent team when McCaffrey plays. If they can get the player who averaged 136.1 scrimmage yards per game between 2018 and 2019, Carolina could compete for a playoff spot in the NFC.
The Bears have a second-year quarterback on offense and allowed his top pass catcher, Allen Robinson, to leave in free agency. If the offense is to compete, it falls on Montgomery’s shoulders.
Montgomery averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last season, totaling 849 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 42 passes for 301 yards with no touchdowns. Getting out of Matt Nagy’s offense, paired with a significant improvement from Justin Fields, will free Montgomery up this year.
The Bears need more consistency in 2022 out of Montgomery, who has the talent to become one of the best running backs in the league. His final six games of 2020 proved that theory (598 yards, seven touchdowns, 5.2 yards per carry). If Montgomery can replicate that performance, the Bears are going to win games.
There are plenty of Cowboys players who are vital to their team’s success, but Parsons is the one who transformed the defense from one of the league’s worst into a top-10 unit.
Parsons was dominant throughout his entire rookie campaign as he finished with 84 tackles, 13 sacks, 30 quarterback hits, 20 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 16 games. His 13 sacks were the most from a rookie since Aldon Smith in 2011, and his 20 tackles for loss were the most by a rookie since Lavonte David in 2012. Since quarterback hits were first tracked in 2006, Parsons’ 30 quarterback hits were the most by a rookie in NFL history. He finished third in the NFL in tackles for loss, tied for fourth in quarterback hits and was sixth in sacks.
Parsons is the first player with 13 sacks and 80 tackles in a single season since J.J. Watt in 2012 (Watt won Defensive Player of the Year that season). The 13 sacks were tied for third-most by a rookie in NFL history since sacks became an NFL stat in 1982. One of just 12 players with at least 10 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2021, Parsons was just one of six rookies with 12 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in a season since 1999 (Dwight Freeney, Joey Bosa, Maxx Crosby, Von Miller, and Clay Matthews are the others).
The Cowboys defense went from 28th in the league in points allowed in 2020 to seventh in 2021. They improved their takeaways from 23 to 34 in the process and were 7-3 when Parsons recorded a sack last year.
If the Cowboys are going to reach the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1995, they’ll need Parsons and the defense to be elite. Parsons is good enough to make both happen.
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Placing a rookie in an MVP conversation for a team? That’s the type of impact Hutchinson can have on the Lions defense, a unit that allowed the second-most points and fourth-most yards in the league last year. The Lions only had 30 sacks in 2021, the third-fewest in the NFL.
Hutchinson is the type of pass rusher who can become a difference-maker on a unit that badly needs help. Hutchinson had the second-highest pressure rate (14.2%) since 2019, second only to Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr.
Michigan had a 35% pressure rate when Hutchinson was on the field (fifth in NCAA), but just 28% when he was off the field (62nd in NCAA) in 2021. His 14 sacks were third in the nation and he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting as a result of his difference-making play.
Hutchinson can accomplish the same for Detroit. He has the potential to make a Micah Parsons-type of impact for the Lions defense.
How can anyone pick against the league MVP in each of the last two years? The Packers earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC thanks to Rodgers having historical seasons. Rodgers won’t have Davante Adams in 2022 and beyond, but the MVP will have something to prove.
Rodgers completed 68.9% of his passes for 4,115 yards with 37 touchdowns to just four interceptions for a 111.9 passer rating in 2021. He led the NFL in touchdown percentage (7.0), interception percentage (0.8), and passer rating. His 13 games with multiple passing touchdowns and zero interceptions are the most in a season in NFL history.
What Rodgers has accomplished over the past three seasons has arguably been one of the best three-year stretches for a quarterback in NFL history. Rodgers has completed 67.1% of his passes for 12,416 yards with 111 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions for a 109.2 passer rating. Rodgers has thrown 85 touchdown passes to nine interceptions since the start of the 2020 season with a 116.7 passer rating, all ranking first in the NFL.
The Packers win because of Rodgers. If they get to the Super Bowl, Rodgers will be the main reason why.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have multiple candidates for this honor, and Matthew Stafford showed the impact a very good quarterback can have on a football team. With that being said, no player was more valuable for his team winning a championship than Kupp.
Kupp finished with the second-most receptions (Michael Thomas had 149 in 2018) and receiving yards (Calvin Johnson had 1,964 in 2011) in a single season in NFL history. He had 90-plus receiving yards in 16 of 17 games in 2021, including 13 straight — the longest streak in NFL history.
A 2021 All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection, Kupp finished the regular season with 145 catches for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns — one of the greatest campaigns for a wide receiver in NFL history. Kupp is just the fourth player in the Super Bowl era to capture the “triple crown” for wide receivers — leading the NFL in catches, yards and TDs — joining Jerry Rice (1990), Sterling Sharpe (1992), and Steve Smith (2005). He’s the first player to win the triple crown outright since Sharpe. (Smith was tied for first in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in 2005.)
Including the postseason, Kupp is the only player to surpass 2,000 receiving yards in a season (2,425). His 178 catches are also the most by any player in a season (including playoffs) in league history, and his 22 touchdown catches are tied for the second-most in NFL history (including the postseason). Kupp was named Super Bowl MVP after having eight catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning touchdown reception in the Rams’ Super Bowl LVI victory over the Bengals.
Kupp joined Rice as the only players in NFL history to win AP Offensive Player of the Year, the receiving triple crown, and Super Bowl MVP — accomplishing all three in just one season. His 27 receptions in the red zone were tied with Thomas (2019) and Davante Adams (2020) for the most in a season, while his 846 yards after the catch and 89 first-down receptions are the fifth-most in NFL history. His 23 catches of 25-plus yards are the most for any player in a season.
If any player defines what a MVP is — it’s Kupp.
There isn’t a player more vital to the Vikings’ success than Jefferson — though Minnesota has a number of candidates. When Jefferson performs well, the Vikings typically win. Minnesota was 5-2 when Jefferson went for 100 yards last season, and one of those losses was on a walk-off touchdown against the Lions.
Jefferson is the No. 1 receiver in Minnesota and probably deserves the ball more. He has 196 catches for 3,016 yards and 17 touchdowns over the last two years. He’s seventh in receptions, first in yards and 10th in receiving touchdowns over that span. His 10.39 yards per reception is also 10th in the league. Jefferson’s 196 catches are tied with Michael Thomas for the most in the league for players after their first two seasons, and his 3,016 yards are the most ever for a player in that span.
The Vikings win games when Jefferson goes over 100 yards. If they make the playoffs in 2022, Jefferson will play a major role in that accomplishment.
New Orleans Saints
Injuries have prevented Thomas from the “best receiver in the NFL” conversation, but he was one of them prior to the ankle injury that hurt his 2020 season and caused him to miss all of 2021.
Thomas broke the NFL receptions record with 149 receptions in 2019, finishing with 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. He has 40 catches for 428 yards and zero touchdowns in the seven games he’s played since.
From 2016 to 2019 (Thomas’ first four seasons in the league), he was the only player in the NFL with 400 receptions (470), and his 5,512 receiving yards trailed only Julio Jones (5,924). His 32 touchdowns were tied for fifth in the league.
The Saints need a healthy Thomas to make the playoffs. If he returns to that 2016 to 2019 level of play, Thomas is easily their most valuable player.
The Giants offense doesn’t go without Barkley, who was one of the game’s most dynamic players before injuries took their toll.
Barkley has averaged just 3.46 yards per carry over the last two seasons, the worst amongst all NFL running backs with 150 attempts. He has 181 carries for 627 yards and two touchdowns, as the rushing yards are ranked 63rd in the league among running backs with at least 150 carries and the touchdowns are tied for fewest in the NFL (out of 65 running backs). Barkley played just 15 of 33 games during that stretch.
When Barkley won AP Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2018, he rushed for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns while having 91 receptions for 721 yards and four touchdowns. He led the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,028 while averaging 5.0 yards per carry and 5.8 yards per touch. Barkley has 398 carries for 1,630 yards and eight touchdowns in the three seasons since, an average of 4.1 yards per carry. He has 99 catches for 761 yards and four receiving touchdowns.
The Giants offense will be significantly better if Barkley’s healthy, which may be enough to save Daniel Jones‘ job.
The Eagles have the talent around Hurts to make a playoff run in the NFC this season. How far Philadelphia goes depends on the development of Hurts.
Whether Hurts has been a good quarterback is up for debate, but the numbers don’t lie. Hurts completed 61.3% of his passes for 3,144 yards with 16 touchdowns to nine interceptions for an 87.2 rating on the year, and he’s just the second quarterback in Eagles history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 750 yards in a season — and the eighth to reach those numbers in NFL history. This was in his first season as the full time starting quarterback.
Hurts is also the only quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in his first 20 career starts (he’s started only 19 games in his career). Despite Hurts’ running ability, the Eagles are just 3-4 when he runs for 60 yards in a game. They are 3-2 when he throws for 200 yards and also 3-2 when he runs for a touchdown.
Philadelphia wants Hurts to throw more, but the running goes hand-in-hand with the Eagles winning ball games. Hurts is set up for a big season in 2022.
San Francisco 49ers
There’s a case to be made for Deebo Samuel here, but Bosa is the difference-maker on a 49ers defense that is one of the best in the NFL.
Bosa was dominant in his first season back from a torn ACL, emerging as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He tied T.J. Watt for the NFL lead in tackles for loss last season (21) while adding 15.5 sacks and 32 quarterback hits. Bosa and Watt were the only two players in the NFL to finish in the top four in sacks, quarterback hits and tackles for loss on the year.
Bosa finished fourth in the league in sacks and third in quarterback hits, while his four forced fumbles were tied for seventh. His 67 pressures were sixth in the NFL and his 39 run stops were tied for fifth. Then there’s the postseason, as Bosa has eight sacks in six playoff games — trailing only Lamarr Woodley and Richard Dent for the most through six games in league history. (Bosa is already the 49ers’ all-time sack leader in the postseason.)
The 49ers were 11-4 (regular season and postseason) when Bosa recorded a sack in 2021. They win when he gets to the quarterback.
Penny was the biggest surprise on the Seahawks last season, becoming the best running back in the NFL over the final month of the year. Because the Seahawks were out of the playoff hunt, Penny’s performance largely went unnoticed.
Penny finished his 2021 season with 119 carries for 749 yards and six touchdowns — leading the NFL with 6.3 yards per carry. In the final five games, Penny had 92 carries for 671 yards and six touchdowns — an incredible 7.3 yards per carry. Seattle’s offense averaged 31.2 points per game and went 3-3 in Penny’s six starts.
Brady has been the glue for a Buccaneers franchise that went from pretender to contender, and their Super Bowl dreams hinge on his performance.
Brady had one of his greatest seasons as a passer at the age of 44, becoming the first player since Peyton Manning in 2013 — and just the third player since 1991 (Drew Brees is the other, in 2008) — to lead the league in completions (485), attempts (719), passing yards (5,316) and passing touchdowns (43). Brady finished his 2021 season completing 67.5% of his passes for 5,316 yards with 43 touchdowns and 12 interceptions (102.1 passer rating).
He is one of just five players in NFL history to record 5,000 yards, 40 touchdowns and a passer rating above 100 — joining Dan Marino (1984), Brees (2011), Manning (2013) and Patrick Mahomes (2018). Brady and Brees are the only two players with multiple 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history, and he is the only player to post back-to-back 40 passing touchdown seasons in league history.
As long as Brady is on the roster, Tampa Bay has a shot at winning the Super Bowl — even as he enters his age-45 season.
The Commanders defense took a massive hit with Young’s subpar second season, falling from fourth in the league in points per game allowed and second per game in yards allowed in 2020 to 25th and 22nd in those categories, respectively. Young also suffered an ACL injury that limited him to just nine games.
Young’s 2021 season was a disaster (1.5 sacks), but it’s hard to ignore the game-changer he was in his rookie campaign. The standout of his rookie class, Young led all rookies in sacks (7.5), tackles for loss (10), pressures (40) and tied for first in forced fumbles (four). He became the first player to record at least two games with at least one fumble recovery, a forced fumble, a sack and a pass defensed since the stats were first recorded in 1999 — and was the first rookie to accomplish the feat.
The Commanders can’t compete in the NFC East without their defense getting back to an elite level. That all starts with Young returning to the dominant player he was two years ago.