We are less than three weeks away from the start of the 2022 NFL regular season and this much is already apparent: It's going to be a wild ride. This past offseason was crazier than ever, filled with blockbuster trades and major free-agent movement. That all set the stage for what's coming this fall, as the parity in this league will be on full display. For the first time in a long time, I believe there are at least 10 teams who legitimately have a great shot at winning a championship.
There are so many loaded teams that it's worth determining where the toughest battles will be fought for playoff seeding. After all, there's going to be at least one squad with high hopes that ends up missing the postseason because of this numbers game. So here's how each division ranks in the overall picture of this coming season. As you can see, the AFC still projects to be a full-scale cage match.
1) AFC West
This might very well end up being the best division in football history. It's filled with talented quarterbacks (the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, Broncos' Russell Wilson, Chargers' Justin Herbert and Raiders' Derek Carr). It has two of the league's most creative offensive coaches (Andy Reid and Josh McDaniels). The rosters have been significantly upgraded by a flurry of offseason acquisitions, including the arrival of Wilson, Broncos outside linebacker Randy Gregory, Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams and Chargers outside linebacker Khalil Mack. The Chiefs have owned this division -- with six consecutive AFC West titles -- but it wouldn't be surprising to see any of these four teams taking this year's crown.
2) NFC West
You never want to place too much stock in a preseason game but damn -- Trey Lance sure looks like he's going to be the real deal in San Francisco. If he's as good as advertised, then the NFC West is going to be a fun ride once again. The division already is home to the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, and they are hell-bent on repeating (especially with the additions of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and wide receiver Allen Robinson). The 49ers, with Lance taking over at quarterback, should be even more dangerous with a mobile, big-armed signal-caller to unleash all of head coach Kyle Shanahan's innovative ideas. Their defense is still as rugged as ever and All-Pro wide receiver Deebo Samuel is in a happy place with his fat, new contract extension. The wild card here is Arizona. There's been plenty of recent drama surrounding Kyler Murray's contract, but this team is known for its fast starts and ugly finishes. If the Cardinals can find a way to avoid another late-season meltdown, they might find themselves back in the postseason as well.
3) AFC East
The Buffalo Bills have the best roster in football. They have every reason to believe they should win the Super Bowl this season. They have a stud quarterback (Josh Allen), a smart head coach (Sean McDermott), a dominant defense (bolstered by the signing of defensive end Von Miller) and all the motivation that comes from a long history of postseason heartbreak in that town. Anything less than a championship this season would be devastating. The Miami Dolphins aren't facing those same expectations but they're primed to take a huge leap forward in their own development. They made too many offseason moves on offense -- including the additions of wide receiver Tyreek Hill, left tackle Terron Armstead and running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert -- to think a 10-7 record will suffice. This team is built to do big things, and that all comes down to whether quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can elevate his game. And then there are the Patriots. Laugh all you want about the dual-offensive coordinator situation and the lack of a postseason win since Tom Brady departed but know this much: Bill Belichick can still coach. He'll have this team contending for a playoff spot come December.
4) AFC North
No division in this ranking took a bigger hit because of one player than this one. If Cleveland was without quarterback Deshaun Watson for the six-game suspension issued by disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson for violating the league's personal-conduct policy, then I'd rank the AFC North as the league's second-best division this year. That won't be the case now that Watson is suspended 11 games this season per the terms of a settlement announced Thursday between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. That means Watson would first be eligible to play in Week 13 against the Houston Texans. The Browns have a great roster. But they aren't surpassing the other teams in this division with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback for nearly two-thirds of the regular season. The Bengals, for one, are the defending AFC champs. They have a legitimate chance to be the best offense in football, especially now that quarterback Joe Burrow has an improved offensive line protecting him. The Ravens will be better, as well. Injuries decimated their playoff hopes last year, but there are plenty of familiar faces back on the field, with some of the most important being running back J.K. Dobbins and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey. Even the Steelers are likely to cause some problems despite having their share of uncertainty at quarterback. Like Belichick, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin knows how to maximize whatever he's working with in any given year. Tomlin won't have a playoff team but he'll have the Steelers ready to play every week.
5) NFC East
The rise of the Philadelphia Eagles made this division much better than it's been in previous seasons. They used a run-heavy offense to make a surprising run to a wild-card spot in 2021. This year's offense figures to be more balanced -- especially with wide receiver A.J. Brown added to all the weapons surrounding quarterback Jalen Hurts -- and that should help the Eagles challenge for the division crown. The team that won that title last season, the Dallas Cowboys, is a bit more confounding these days. We know they'll play strong defense, as they boast two of the best young defenders in the game (linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs). What isn't so apparent is how the same offense that led the league in scoring last year will look without some key weapons. Sure, quarterback Dak Prescott still has wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. However, the Cowboys lost two receivers during the offseason (Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson), free-agent addition James Washington suffered a broken foot in training camp -- which will sideline him for six to 10 weeks -- and Michael Gallup will still be recovering from a torn ACL when the season begins. That's a lot to deal with for a team hoping to start fast. As for the remainder of the division, it's hard to be optimistic about either the Washington Commanders or the New York Giants. Their quarterback play is just too unreliable.
6) AFC South
This division should belong to the Colts this year. They've watched the Tennessee Titans literally run through it over the last couple seasons, but it feels like Indianapolis is finally in position to unseat the defending division champs. The arrival of quarterback Matt Ryan via an offseason trade is a big reason behind that thinking. So is the presence of All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor and that offensive line. There are still legitimate questions at wide receiver, but it's amazing how dangerous a passing attack can become with a big-time ball-carrier and a signal-caller who knows what he's doing. The Titans, on the other hand, have quite a few questions on their offense heading into this season. The trade that sent A.J. Brown to Philadelphia stripped them of their best wide receiver. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill played one of the worst games of his career in a playoff loss to Cincinnati back in January. Star running back Derrick Henry looked mortal for once, as a foot injury sidelined him for nine games. There's been no secret as to how the Titans want to win games, essentially by pummeling opponents and limiting mistakes. It's just harder to know if they have the ability to do that consistently this fall. It helps that they'll still be in a division with a couple younger teams trying to figure things out -- Jacksonville and Houston -- but it just feels like the AFC South will be offering only one playoff participant come January.
7) NFC North
Green Bay has won the last three NFC North titles and it's hard to not see the Packers claiming a fourth consecutive crown. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has two straight league MVP awards and the Packers' defense should be downright scary. That unit has pass rushers, run stoppers and a host of cornerbacks who excel in man coverage. It wouldn't be shocking to see this defense ranked as the league's best by season's end. Here's another possibility that shouldn't be surprising: The Detroit Lions might be the second-best team in the division. For all the punchlines spawned by the unabashed nature of head coach Dan Campbell, this squad is gritty and feisty. It says plenty that these young players kept competing after going winless in the first 11 weeks of last season. The Lions proved they had plenty of heart in 2021. The question now is whether they're ready to capitalize on one of the league's most forgiving schedules. The Minnesota Vikings obviously have the most offensive talent in the division after Green Bay, with stars like running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson being the headliners. The defense, on the other hand, needs to find itself in a hurry. A once-proud unit now has gone a couple years without being formidable, and there are some high hopes resting on the pass-rushing duo of Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith. As for the Bears, it seems the most encouraging aspect about their team is the cap space they'll have available in the offseason after they finish plodding through this year.
8) NFC South
It's hard to know all the factors that played into Tom Brady changing his mind on retirement so quickly, but let's discuss him citing a desire for the competition. The future Hall of Fame quarterback always has possessed exceptional vision when it comes to seeing opportunities on the field. The same can be said of what he's surely seeing in the NFC South this season, where Tampa Bay should be in a great position to repeat as division champs and make a playoff run. Sure, there are issues on the interior of the offensive line (with center Ryan Jensen sidelined by a knee injury), but the Bucs still have the most talented roster in this division. Just as important, they still feel like they have unfinished business, as their hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champs evaporated in a Divisional Round playoff loss to the Rams at home. The closest competition to Tampa Bay will once again be New Orleans, although the Saints likely will look much different with former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen replacing Sean Payton as head coach. Allen led some great defenses over the last couple years in New Orleans. Now we'll see how the offense performs with Payton gone and quarterback Jameis Winston entering his third season with the franchise (Winston sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 8 last year). There are plenty of weapons on the outside now -- with rookie Chris Olave and free-agent addition Jarvis Landry joining Michael Thomas -- but Payton's creativity is what made that unit so dangerous in the first place. There is a big drop-off in the division after Tampa Bay and New Orleans. Atlanta and Carolina could be two of the worst teams in football.
NFL+ gives you the freedom to watch LIVE out-of-market preseason games, LIVE local and prime-time regular-season and postseason games on your phone or tablet, the best NFL programming on-demand and more! Wherever you are, this is how you football! Learn more about NFL+.