Super Bowl 2022: After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dominated the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV, and managed to keep their entire core of starters together in free agency, it looks like the Bucs have a legitimate chance to repeat.
But who could catch Tom Brady and Tampa Bay? Plenty of teams were aggressive during free agency, and with the NFL Draft in the books, there’s a real chance that certain teams could make enough improvements to challenge for the playoffs, and even the Lombardi Trophy far quicker than anticipated.
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 predictions, which will be updated throughout the offseason and each week during the regular season.
AFC West champions: Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes, blindingly fast receiver Tyreek Hill and possible GOAT tight end Travis Kelce give the Chiefs the most devastating passing game trio in modern NFL history. 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 its rushing attack. Clyde Edwards-Helaire can create lots of yards after contact, and the Chiefs addressed their offensive line with their trade for left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., and free-agent acquisitions of Joe Thuney and Kyle Long. Then, they continued to attack that need by landing Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey on Day 2 of the draft.
Don’t sleep on Kansas City’s defense, either. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves to bring pressure and dial up plays with reckless abandon. 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.
AFC North champions: Cleveland Browns
Speaking of the Browns, the AFC team that came closest to beating the Chiefs in the postseason was Cleveland, who lost 22-17 in the Divisional Round. This team showed showed they aren’t the “same old Browns” and were a Rashard Higgins touchback fumble away from making that one really interesting.
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. Cornerback Greedy Williams was also out for all of this past season, which really put the defensive backfield in a bind.
General manager Andrew Berry bolstered the secondary in free agency with John Johnson III and Troy Hill, and selected Greg Newsome II in the first round. Newsome should compete against Williams to start opposite Denzel Ward and could be a big upgrade. Berry also traded up in the draft’s second round for Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, whose hard hitting and coverage ability make him a plug-and-play, instant-impact starter.
It also 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.
Jadeveon Clowney is also now on the Browns’ roster, so it’s on Mayfield to live up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick and carry Cleveland to at least the AFC Championship Game.
AFC South champions: Tennessee Titans
The Indianapolis Colts could easily take this spot, but after trading for Carson Wentz in the wake of Philip Rivers’ retirement, it’s impossible to endorse them at this moment. An ongoing Deshaun Watson fiasco and the utterly dire state of their roster leave the Houston Texans with no shot at winning this division, so rule them out.
The Tennessee Titans are the reigning champs. Losing their offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to Atlanta was a big deal, but the Falcons just did the Titans a huge favor. Ryan Tannehill will now be throwing passes to Julio Jones and A.J. Brown in 2021 thanks to a landmark trade that vaults Tennessee to AFC South favorite status.
Until Urban Meyer proves he can win at the NFL level and Trevor Lawrence shows his worthiness of the No. 1 overall pick, it’s hard to endorse the Jacksonville Jaguars as seriously challenging for the title. The Titans are going to be even more dynamic in the passing game, and take more pressure off reigning rushing champion Derrick Henry.
Henry has at least a couple more great seasons left in him, and the Titans restocked their secondary in the draft, selecting Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley and Washington defensive back Elijah Molden, who can play in the slot or at safety.
If either one of those rookies hit in Year 1, Tennessee will be much better on the back end. The addition of Bud Dupree in free agency should go a long way in helping the team’s maligned pass rush, too.
AFC East champions: Buffalo Bills
Who saw Josh Allen‘s hurdling-over-a-skyscraper leap in Year 3 coming? Stefon Diggs proved the change of scenery from Minnesota to Buffalo was just what he needed to maximize his talents, too, as he led the league with 127 catches and 1,535 receiving yards.
It’s true the Bills’ defense hit their stride at the right time after a sluggish start to 2020 and played well enough to be an AFC finalist. Nevertheless, there’s room for improvement. Coach Sean McDermott’s system depends heavily on a strong group of cornerbacks, and much of the secondary is still intact. Buffalo added two pass-rushers in the draft in Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr., who both have inside-outside versatility.
The bigger problem is the rushing attack, or lack thereof. Bills play-caller Brian Daboll all but abandoned the run down the stretch last year. How much Buffalo improves in that area will determine its chances at a Super Bowl.
AFC Wild Card predictions: Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins
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 the Chargers to new heights.
Having someone like Justin Herbert under center is great for Staley. This new L.A. defense the coach takes over has elite talent everywhere with the likes of edge-rusher Joey Bosa, linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. and All-Pro safety Derwin James.
The Bolts had the NFL’s worst offensive line according to Pro Football Focus in 2020. It’s a wonder Herbert played as well as he did. That problematic unit got way better, though, when the Chargers signed Corey Linsley at center and got a steal in selecting Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater 13th overall in the draft.
As for the remainder of the AFC Wild Card teams, Miami should take a step forward in QB Tua Tagovailoa‘s sophomore season. Jaylen Waddle was Miami’s first Round 1 pick, and he reunites with Tagovailoa in the NFL to provide the Dolphins with two lethal deep threats in tandem with Will Fuller.
Baltimore keeps hanging tough and takes the top Wild Card spot. The Ravens need to adjust on offense, and not rely on Lamar Jackson running so much. Picking wide receiver Rashod Bateman is going to prove to be one of the best values of the draft.
NFC West champions: Los Angeles Rams
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, as would the departures of Johnson and Hill to Cleveland.
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.
Stafford is such a monumental upgrade over Goff. It can’t be overstated. Goff was easily the worst quarterback in the NFC West division. Stafford is a far more dynamic arm talent who can capitalize on the immense skill of the weapons around him and help McVay’s offense reach its full potential.
NFC North champions: Green Bay Packers
How brilliant has Packers head coach Matt LaFleur been? Remember that he was widely derided as a 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. Green Bay’s defense should also benefit from the parting of ways with coordinator Mike Pettine, yet alas, once again, the Packers were conservative in free agency.
This feels like Aaron Rodgers‘ final season with Green Bay. That is, if he isn’t traded. The Packers front office doesn’t do enough to push for championships. Winning only one Super Bowl apiece with Brett Favre and Rodgers is just awful.
NFC South champions: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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 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, already did that.
The Bucs played most of their championship season without stud nose tackle Vita Vea, who makes their run defense almost impossible to penetrate when he’s on the field. When Brady gets even more comfortable in coach Bruce Arians’ vertical passing system, it could really get difficult for whoever is facing the Bucs.
NFC East champions: Washington Football Team
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. Until Daniel Jones proves himself as the New York Giants’ long-term answer at QB, their ceiling is limited.
Oh, and the Philadelphia Eagles are in perpetual chaos. They may have made the worst new coaching hire in Nick “Systems” Sirianni.
The Washington Football Team field a great defense, but again, that pesky quarterback position was a big question mark entering the offseason. Despite a history of inconsistent play, this is actually the best situation Ryan Fitzpatrick has ever had by far in all the starting opportunities he’s gotten.
Fitzpatrick is inheriting an exceptional cast of skill position players in running back Antonio Gibson and receivers Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and rookie third-round pick Dyami Brown. Tight end Logan Thomas is no slouch as a pass-catcher, either.
Washington is going to continue terrorizing the opposition with its excellent front seven, and the secondary got even better this offseason with the acquisition of William Jackson III at cornerback. As long as Fitzmagic protects the football well enough, the Football Team should repeat as NFC East champs.
NFC Wild Card predictions: Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals
So yes, Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona represent the NFC West along with the Rams. The buzz about a possible trade involving superstar quarterback Russell Wilson has died down, so until he posts a losing record for the Seahawks or is no longer on their roster, we have to keep putting them in the postseason.
The 49ers had so many free agents to negotiate, but managed extremely well, re-signing elite left tackle Trent Williams, which was really the move they had to make. Now, they’ll either start Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback or Trey Lance under Kyle Shanahan’s watch after a blockbuster trade to move up to third overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.
As for the Cardinals, it’s Year 3 of the Kyler Murray-Kliff Kingsbury era, which means it’s time to take the next step. GM Steve Keim made a big splash by signing J.J. Watt to bolster the defense’s front seven, and drafting Zaven Collins 16th overall. The pressure is on, because if Arizona doesn’t deliver, Keim’s seat will be hot, and Kingsbury could be gone.
Murray is arguably the best blend of throwing and running the NFL has right now at QB, and another year with DeAndre Hopkins should help the Cardinals surge into a Wild Card berth.
So who will win Super Bowl LVI?
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 Chiefs fall to the Browns in the AFC Championship Game, and the Rams best Green Bay in the Divisional Round to set up an NFC title clash at Tampa Bay.
It’s a legitimately tough call to figure out who’s going to meet up with Cleveland in the grand finale, but we’ll give the slight edge to the defending champs, simply because of the key defensive backs they lost to the Browns in free agency.
That’s right: Our fearless forecast as of now is that the Cleveland Browns will face the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LVI and win. The Browns’ pass-rushing duo of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, combined with their much-improved defense and the return of Odell Beckham Jr. from injury, will ultimately help Cleveland win it all.