NFL season preview: State of play in every division ahead of 2022 kick-off

On the eve of the 2022 campaign, Standard Sport takes a whistle-stop tour through the league’s eight divisions…

NFC East

Widely considered one of the worst divisions in any elite sport in recent seasons, the NFC East includes a defending champion in the Dallas Cowboys that won 12 games last year and a Philadelphia Eagles side that have been gathering momentum as a dark horse pick for the Super Bowl in recent weeks. Go figure. Both benefit from kind schedules (they each have six matches against other teams in the NFC East, after all) and have playoff ambitions, though Philadelphia have clearly enjoyed the better offseason.

The Washington Commanders, in their first season under their new name, now have Carson Wentz – quarterback for much of the Eagles’ Super Bowl-winning season in 2017 – under centre and cannot be ruled out of contention, while the New York Giants are on a run of five straight losing seasons and there is little to suggest they won’t make it a sixth.

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NFC West

Defending Super Bowl champions the Los Angeles Rams head up perhaps the conference’s most loaded division and have bolstered their already loaded roster with the addition of Bobby Wagner. If Matthew Stafford’s elbow holds up, they’re strong favourites to repeat despite a tough schedule. The San Francisco 49ers are putting their fortunes in the hands of 22-year-old quarterback Trey Lance, the third pick in the 2021 Draft, despite veteran Jimmy Garoppolo having signed a one-year deal to stick around as the NFL’s best-paid back-up.

There are fears the Arizona Cardinals could be one of the season’s major disappointments. The franchise finished with an 11-6 record last term, but that was underwhelming in itself after starting 7-0 and they will be without star wide-receiver DeAndre Hopkins for the first six games due to a PED ban. As well as losing Wagner to the Rams, the Seattle Seahawks have seen Russell Wilson depart and are set for a tough year with Geno Smith at quarterback.

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NFC North

The Green Bay Packers (heading to London for the first time in their history next month) are favourites again, still spearheaded by back-to-back reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, but he no longer has his favourite target, Davante Adams, to throw to, and as good as Rodgers is, it may actually be Green Bay’s defense that sets them apart.

You cannot move for warnings about people “sleeping on” the Minnesota Vikings, which means everyone is now just about awake and recognising what looks a supremely well-balanced roster, led by new head coach Kevin O’Connell, who won the Super Bowl as the Rams’ offensive coordinator last year. There does not look a great deal between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, both of whom could enjoy seasons of progress at the start of rebuilds without troubling the postseason.

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NFC South

Injuries and retirements have impacted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers going into the new season but the unretirement of Tom Brady, 45, means that – now that the quarterback has actually turned up – the Super Bowl winners of a couple of seasons ago are the standout team in what looks a windy division.

12 months after starting the first season of the post-Drew Brees era, the New Orleans Saints are now beginning life after head coach Sean Payton, too, while the Atlanta Falcons look weaker having lost long-time quarterback Matt Ryan and ended up with Marcus Mariota while trying and failing to lure Deshaun Watson. The Carolina Panthers also chased Watson, but have at least landed on Baker Mayfield and should finish third.

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AFC East

Undone by the Chiefs two seasons in a row in the playoffs, the Buffalo Bills are the bookmakers’ favourites to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy next February. That is a long way down the track, but it would be a major surprise if Josh Allen, Von Miller & Co. did not cruise out of this division into the postseason. They are a class apart in the AFC East and anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl would be deemed failure.

A wildcard spot will likely be the best the Miami Dolphins can hope for and much will depend on whether the acquisition of Tyreek Hill can elevate Tua Tagovailoa’s displays. You can guarantee Bill Belichick will get every last drop out of the New England Patriots, but there doesn’t look to be a whole lot of juice in a limited roster. The New York Jets will improve in head coach Robert Saleh’s second season but from too low a base to contend for the postseason, particularly as Zach Wilson starts the season sidelined.

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AFC West

The AFC is stacked with potential Super Bowl contenders and the AFC West boasts a fair proportion of them on its own. The Kansas City Chiefs won it all two seasons ago and Patrick Mahomes remains just about the most exciting player in the league. He has new weapons around him, with the likes of rookie Skyy Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster tasked with collectively filling the Hill-shaped hole on offense.

The Los Angeles Chargers have looked to plug the leaky defense that cost them despite Justin Herbert’s incredible numbers last year, while the Las Vegas Raiders have a highly-rated new head coach in Josh McDaniels, long-time offensive coordinator under Belichick at the Patriots. Throw in Russell Wilson’s arrival as the Denver Broncos’ new quarterback and you have perhaps the only division in the NFL where all four teams have legitimate postseason expectations.

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AFC North

Another potentially ultra-competitive division, the complexion of the AFC North will largely depend on whether the Cincinnati Bengals’ “worst-to-first” run was a flash in the pan, or whether the likes of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase can sustain or even improve on the form that took the franchise to its first Super Bowl since 1989. Injuries wrecked the Baltimore Ravens season last year as they lost their final six games but a healthy roster should push the Bengals close.

The Cleveland Browns have had the most controversial offseason of any franchise after signing Watson, who is suspended for the first 11 games after sexual misconduct allegations. Mitch Trubisky will start at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers as head coach Mike Tomlin puts his record of never having had a losing season in his 15-year reign on the line.

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AFC South

The battle between the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans at the top of the division looks a fairly even one. The Titans, who have star running back Derrick Henry fit again, were the AFC’s No1 seed going into the postseason last year but fell at the first hurdle, while the Colts have picked up Matt Ryan as their fourth post-Andrew Luck quarterback in as many seasons and benefit from a kind schedule.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are banking on Trevor Lawrence kicking on in his second season after being a no-brainer No1 pick in the 2021 Draft and should avoid the wooden spoon on account of the Houston Texans being potentially the worst team in football.

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