Predicting NFL playoff teams and Super Bowl 2022 winner

Super Bowl 2022: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the new NFL champions, but who will make the playoffs — and lift the Lombardi Trophy at the end of next season?

By Matt Fitzgerald
Feb 7, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl 2022: Now that this year’s championship has been decided after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dominated the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV, it’s time to look immediately ahead to next season!

That’s right. Enjoying the moment is overrated. Just kidding, but while Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes deserve to have their greatness celebrated, the other 30 fanbases around the NFL have already looked ahead to free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, fervently running mock simulations until their eyes turn red.

Who will comprise the 14 NFL playoff teams once the 2021 season is finished? Who will be the Super Bowl 2022 winner in the next calendar year? Check out Sportsnaut’s initial offer of prediction, which will be updated throughout the offseason and each week during the regular season.

Read More: Biggest Super Bowl LV winners and losers from Chiefs vs. Buccaneers

AFC West champions: Kansas City Chiefs

Super Bowl 2022: Will Kansas City Chiefs play in Big Game for third year in a row?
Jan 24, 2021; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) celebrates during the fourth quarter in the AFC Championship Game against the Buffalo Bills at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Really, are we going to bet against the Chiefs at this point? They were a play away from playing in the past three Super Bowls and just went 14-2. Until the Chargers, Raiders or Broncos show they can knock off the champs, there’s absolutely no reason to bet against Kansas City in its division.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, blindingly fast receiver Tyreek Hill and possible GOAT tight end Travis Kelce have to be the most devastating passing game trio in modern NFL history. They create so many matchup problems, and what’s more, are capable of creating so many plays out of structure that turn into touchdowns.

As long as those three superstars are healthy, the Chiefs should keep rolling and potentially be a Super Bowl 2022 participant. Even scarier, K.C. can actually improve if its run blocking gets better to pave more lanes for gifted tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who felt underutilized as a first-year pro and could be primed to be a top-five fantasy running back for the rest of his rookie contract thanks to his pass-catching ability.

Don’t sleep on the Chiefs’ defense, either. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves to bring pressure and dial up plays with reckless abandon, thanks in part to the luxury of having a Mahomes-led offense. Defensive tackle Chris Jones is an elite interior pass-rusher, and the secondary headlined by Tyrann Mathieu is low-key one of the best in all of football.

Read More: Sportsnaut exclusive: Kansas City Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo talks head coach job, stopping Tom Brady

AFC North champions: Cleveland Browns

Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) carries the ball against Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Steven Nelson (22) during the second quarter at Heinz Field. The Browns won 48-37. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC team that came closest to beating the Chiefs was Cleveland, who lost 22-17 in the Divisional Round. Yes, Mahomes went out with an injury for a good chunk of that contest, yet the Browns showed they aren’t the “same old Browns” and were a Rashard Higgins touchback fumble away from making that one really interesting — with or without Mahomes.

Mind you, this was all accomplished with a completely outmatched defense that was missing starting defensive end Olivier Vernon, who suffered a Week 17 Achilles injury.

Read More: NFL Power Rankings: Tom Brady and Tampa Bay Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV, offseason outlook for all 32 teams

What many outside Cleveland don’t know is the Browns also played 2020 without a rookie in Grant Delpit who tore his Achilles in training camp and would’ve started at safety. No. 2 cornerback Greedy Williams was also out for all of this past season, which really put the defensive backfield in a bind.

As long as general manager Andrew Berry makes the necessary upgrades to the defense, it looks like reigning Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski has something special on offense with Baker Mayfield at the controls. Mayfield was Pro Football Focus‘ eighth-best quarterback this season, had PFF’s No. 1 offensive line and fourth-ranked running back, Nick Chubb.

Stefanski had to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak and acclimate to his new role as head coach amid extraordinary circumstances. If Odell Beckham Jr. remains with the team, this offense should benefit from added practice time, and the Browns should be even more dangerous, taking the next logical step as AFC North champions.

Read More: NFL rumors: Could Cleveland Browns trade Odell Beckham Jr. in 2021?

AFC South champions: Tennessee Titans

Jan 10, 2021; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs onto the field during pregame introductions before a AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts could easily take this spot at some point, but after trading for Carson Wentz in the wake of Philip Rivers’ retirement, it’s impossible to endorse them at this moment due to Wentz’s horrendous 2020 campaign. That’s why the Titans, almost by default, check in here as winners of the AFC South for the second straight season.

Due to the ongoing Deshaun Watson trade demand controversy and the dire state of the roster, the Houston Texans have no shot at winning this division. While there are high hopes in Jacksonville with the impending arrival of quarterback Trevor Lawrence to join forces with Urban Meyer, it feels premature to say the Jaguars are ready to contend for the postseason.

Read More: NFL QB carousel 2021: Updated best landing spots for biggest stars, prospects

Tennessee has a core of players who’ve been to the AFC Championship Game and backed up that surprising run with another strong 2020 campaign. Running back Derrick Henry ran for over 2,000 yards this last season, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill has continued his impressive career renaissance, thanks in part to how much attention Henry attracts.

Two big concerns, and resultant reservations with this pick: The Titans managed only 19 sacks as a team, which ranked 30th out of 32 teams. They also lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, as he moved on to be head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

How does Smith’s departure impact Tannehill and Henry? And can the front office find a way to bolster the defense? These are legitimate questions that don’t have a clear answer.

Keep an eye on this section of predictions, because depending on what the cash-wielding Jaguars do in free agency and who the Colts bring aboard to fill out their roster, things could change here fast.

Read More: Power ranking every NFL head coach hiring for 2021

AFC East champions: Buffalo Bills

Jan 24, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) looks to pass in the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Who saw Josh Allen‘s hurdling-over-a-skyscraper leap in Year 3 coming? In any event, it happened, and Stefon Diggs proved the change of scenery from Minnesota to Buffalo was just what he needed to maximize his talents, as he led the league with 127 catches and 1,535 receiving yards.

Diggs is part of a receiving group that features Cole Beasley and John Brown. They’re a problem for opposing defenses, because Allen can find any given one of them at any time.

It’s true the Bills’ defense hit their stride at the right time after a sluggish start to 2020 and played well enough to make the AFC title game. Nevertheless, there’s room for improvement on that unit. Coach Sean McDermott’s system depends heavily on a strong group of cornerbacks, but two of Buffalo’s top three players at that position will be free agents.

The bigger problem is the rushing attack, or lack thereof. Bills play-caller Brian Daboll all but abandoned the run down the stretch, forcing Allen to either keep defenses honest with his legs or to just sling the ball around the yard all day.

Devin Singletary is a talented back, and without too many other holes on the roster, Buffalo should address its insufficient ability to move teams off the line of scrimmage in the run game with relative ease this offseason. As long as that happens, expect a Bills to retain their hard-earned AFC East crown after years of watching New England take the division.

Read More: Winners, losers from Kansas City Chiefs win over the Buffalo Bills in AFC Championship Game

AFC Wild Card predictions: Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens

Dec 27, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) gestures at the line of scrimmage during the first half against the Denver Broncos at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Dating back to 2008, there’s been at least one new head coaching hire to make the playoffs. This next NFL season won’t be any exception, as Brandon Staley goes from one-year wunderkind as Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator to taking over the Chargers.

Staley is a genius on defense — his side of the ball’s Sean McVay, if you will. He’s inheriting a team with a phenomenal young quarterback in Justin Herbert. Having someone like Herbert under center is at least half the battle for new coaches. The Bolts had the most attractive 2021 head coaching vacancy in terms of winning right away, largely because of Herbert entering only his second year.

This new L.A. defense Staley will take over has elite talent everywhere with the likes of edge-rusher Joey Bosa, linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. and All-Pro safety Derwin James, who’ll return from injury after not playing in 2020. Oh, and the Chargers won their last four games, which typically doesn’t mean a lot, but in this case, it definitely bodes well.

As for the remainder of the AFC Wild Card teams, Miami makes sense as a team that should take a step forward in QB Tua Tagovailoa‘s sophomore season. The Fins have a Super Bowl-caliber defense and are coming off a 10-win season. Tagovailoa should benefit from a fuller training camp program as he tries to assert himself as the face of the franchise.

Baltimore keeps hanging tough amid a tough AFC North division that should be rather evenly matched, what with Cleveland thriving, Pittsburgh still being a factor and Cincinnati expected to improve.

The Ravens have struggled to get over the hump in the postseason, and how long can they rely on Lamar Jackson running so much? Maybe now that passing game coordinator David Culley is the head coach of the Houston Texans, Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman can figure out better ways to put Jackson in a spot to succeed as a passer with more easy throws and friendlier play designs.

Read More: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens to discuss contract extension very soon

NFC West champions: Los Angeles Rams

Jan 16, 2021; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay yells to his team during the first half of a NFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Given how much the last section just gushed about Staley’s outlook with the Chargers, his leaving the Rams might suggest bad news for the defense.

Well, maybe that’d be the case if Jared Goff were still the quarterback. It’s not. Because, lo and behold, the Detroit Lions finally let Matthew Stafford flee to greener pastures in a blockbuster trade that’s totally rocked the NFL landscape before the Super Bowl was even played.

Stafford is such a monumental upgrade over Goff. It can’t be overstated. Goff was easily the worst quarterback in the NFC West division, and now Stafford is a far more dynamic arm talent who can fully capitalize on the immense skill of the weapons around him and help McVay’s offense reach its full potential.

Receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods are both excellent, and second-year wideout Van Jefferson is already showing promise. Running back Cam Akers gives Stafford a better, more productive and explosive back than he ever really had in Detroit, and Los Angeles’ backfield features multiple other capable ball-carriers to complement him in the passing attack.

As we’ll see later in these playoff team predictions, the NFC West should be well-represented in the next NFL postseason.

Read More: Winners, losers from blockbuster Matthew Stafford trade to Los Angeles Rams

NFC North champions: Green Bay Packers

Dec 29, 2019; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur (left) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) before the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Packers coach Matt LaFleur is getting a lot of deserved heat for not letting his MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers try to convert a goal-to-go from nine yards away in the NFC Championship Game against Tampa Bay. LaFleur opted to kick a field goal instead, and Tom Brady never gave Green Bay the ball back en route to a 10th Super Bowl appearance.

Can we just pause for a second and realize how brilliant LaFleur has been, though? Remember that he was widely derided as a head coaching hire because of his close proximity to McVay with the Rams. There was this weird notion that because of his McVay affiliation, LaFleur didn’t merit Green Bay’s prestigious job.

All LaFleur has done in his first two seasons at the helm is lead the Packers to a game away from the Super Bowl twice, with twin 13-3 regular-season records to boot.

Just about any other coach would be hailed as the next big thing. As long as Green Bay’s defense benefits from the parting of ways with coordinator Mike Pettine and can fortify the other cornerback spot opposite the elite Jaire Alexander, there’s no reason to think the Packers can’t go one step further and at least represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVI.

Oh, and Rodgers just played the best year of his career despite the personnel not giving him any additional weapons last offseason. They probably won’t make that same mistake again. It’s just another reason to really like Green Bay to stay atop the NFC North.

Read More: Green Bay Packers to hire Joe Barry as defensive coordinator

NFC South champions: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady
Jan 24, 2021, Green Bay, WI, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) exalts during the presentation off the George Halas Trophy after their NFC Championship game Sunday, January 24, 2021 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Green Bay Packers 31-26. Mandatory credit: Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK

Isn’t it amazing? A 43-year-old Tom Brady changes offenses for the first time in two decades, and guides his team to a Super Bowl triumph.

Because of how often Brady did it in New England, it’s easy to take for granted. Bear in mind, though, that Drew Brees, for all the historic passing numbers he’s put up, has himself only gotten out of the NFC and secured a Super Bowl berth just once. Brady, in Year 1 with Tampa Bay, has already done it.

Figuring out things on the fly is never easy, but Brady ultimately capitalized on the embarrassment of riches at his disposal in the receiving corps. Here’s the thing, too: The Bucs played most of their season without stud nose tackle Vita Vea, who makes their run defense almost impossible to penetrate when he’s on the field.

Read More: Top takeaways from Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl LV victory over the Kansas City Chiefs

Even the players who could leave in free agency shouldn’t hinder the Bucs too much. Receiver Chris Godwin could be gone, yet rookie Tyler Johnson has made clutch catches throughout the postseason, and the same can be said for Scotty Miller. Lavonte David may seek a larger payday elsewhere, yet Devin White would still be there to lead the linebacker corps.

Brady’s presence is bound to draw other free agents to help plug any roster holes Tampa Bay could have entering next season. As Brady gets more comfortable in coach Bruce Arians’ vertical passing system, it could really get scary for whoever is facing the Bucs.

Carolina and Atlanta are in relative rebuilds, and New Orleans is in salary cap hell, leaving Tampa Bay is the prohibitive favorite in the NFC South.

Read More: NFL salary cap tracker: Where each team stands in 2021

NFC East champions: New York Giants

Aug 28, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) takes a selfie with quarterback Daniel Jones (8) after the Blue-White Scrimmage at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

If the G-Men play like they did on defense in 2020, hit on their highest draft pick, and get both quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley healthy, they have the means to win the NFC East.

Let’s be honest: The bar for this division isn’t very high. The Dallas Cowboys looked like a mess under new coach Mike McCarthy despite so much talent, and they may scare quarterback Dak Prescott out of town in the process. Dallas has erred thus far in not signing Prescott to a long-term contract, which could mean he doesn’t return for America’s Team.

The Washington Football Team has a great defense, but again, that pesky quarterback position is a big question mark. Until that’s adequately addressed, how can anyone confidently say Washington is a lock to repeat?

As for the Philadelphia Eagles’ QB controversy, well, Carson Wentz brought about that with his poor play and reported detrimental conduct that made him a toxic influence in the locker room, and on first-year field general Jalen Hurts. Wentz is probably out of Philly very soon, and there are doubts as to whether Hurts is ready to lead a dysfunctional organization to the playoffs.

That leaves New York. Joe Judge was a widely panned hire when he first signed on, yet he’s endeared himself to fans in the Big Apple for his no-nonsense approach and workmanlike mentality.

As long as Jones and Barkley play to their talent level and the defense holds true, look for the Giants to be back in a big way in 2021.

Read More: New York Giants draft picks: Top options in a strong class, ideal 2021 NFL Draft targets

NFC Wild Card predictions: Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings

Jan 3, 2021; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) against the San Francisco 49ers at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

So yes, San Francisco and Seattle represent the NFC West along with the Rams, meaning Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury could have one of the hottest seats in the NFL.

The 49ers have a lot of issues to address, namely decisions on 43 free agents and whether or not they move on from oft-injured Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. Whatever they decide to do, coach Kyle Shanahan is arguably the best play-caller in the sport, and even competent quarterback play and a much healthier roster will help lift San Francisco back to the playoffs following its vicious Super Bowl hangover.

He’d never say so publicly, but you can bet Russell Wilson is quietly joyous that Brian Schottenheimer was fired. Having a fresher, more attack-minded offensive coordinator in Shane Waldron, who should find better, more creative ways to capitalize on the immense playmaking capabilities of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.

Very interesting is the fact that Waldron was just the Rams’ passing game coordinator. He should have some inside knowledge to help the Seahawks against their division rival, despite the fact that LA’s system will feature several distinct changes now that Stafford is throwing the ball.

Finally, we’re giving some love to the Minnesota Vikings. For all the grief he takes and constant turnover at offensive coordinator he endures, Kirk Cousins is a darn good quarterback who overcame a nightmarish start to last season to finish among the NFL leaders in passer rating in another season of 4,000-plus yards passing.

Cousins, like Wilson, has two amazing receivers in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen at his disposal, not to mention Dalvin Cook in the backfield. As long as head coach Mike Zimmer galvanizes the defense during the 2021 campaign and the pass rush improves with a healthy Danielle Hunter back in action, look for the Vikings to right the ship and make the postseason.

Read More: Minnesota Vikings draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

So who will win Super Bowl LVI?

Dec 29, 2019; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) reacts while walking off the field after the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

What a question to ask.

Plenty is still to play out, and it’ll be much easier to figure out who might hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LVI once rosters are more settled for the 2021 season.

As for the road to the Big Game, here are some bold predictions: The Chargers upend the Chiefs in the Divisional Round before falling to the Bills in the AFC Championship Game, and the Seahawks benefit from a new offensive coordinator to upset Tampa Bay in the second round to set up an NFC title clash at Green Bay.

Thus, the implication is it’ll be the Bills and Packers squaring off for Super Bowl glory. In the end, with Mahomes seemingly in charge of the future GOAT conversation and Brady stealing Rodgers’ bid at a second championship this postseason, we’re forecasting Rodgers’ revenge.

That’s right: Our fearless forecast as of now is that the Green Bay Packers will win Super Bowl LVI over the Buffalo Bills.

Read More: Green Bay Packers HC Matt LaFleur shuts down Aaron Rodgers trade rumors

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