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Our NFC Projections Foresee A Battle Of The Bays

In the 18 Super Bowls played between 2002 and 2019, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots represented the AFC in exactly half of them.

Brady switched conferences following the 2019 season to join Tampa Bay … and has since started for the NFC in half of those Super Bowls, too. So it’s fitting that this year, just as it has for over two decades, the fate of a conference turns on Tom Brady. Our model projects the Bucs and the Green Bay Packers as favorites to represent the conference in Arizona for Super Bowl LVII. 

Read on to see how the rest of the NFC teams fared in our Elo forecast’s first batch of 50,000 season simulations:

How we’re predicting the NFC East race
team elo rating proj. record make playoffs win division win super bowl
Cowboys 1557 10-7 62% 37% 5%
Eagles 1533 10-7 58 34 4
Commanders 1477 8-9 40 18 2
Giants 1435 7-10 28 12 1

Simulations as of Sept. 7, 2022.

After a disappointing 6-10 season in 2020, the Dallas Cowboys clinched the NFC East last year with two weeks left to play. Led by quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys went 12-5 during the season with its offense averaging 31 points per game, topping the league. Not to be outdone, their third-ranked defense (by EPA) was stout and opportunistic, leading the league in takeaways. And the Cowboys were absolutely dominant against their division rivals, sweeping the East for the first time since 1998. While it still didn’t land Dallas in the NFC title game, it was an impressive overall season.

But Elo rating suggests a tougher road ahead for Dallas in 2022. The model sees the Cowboys dropping to 10 wins, dead-even with the Philadelphia Eagles in a tight battle for divisional supremacy. Last year, Philadelphia’s first season since 2015 without quarterback Carson Wentz, was a mild success, and it laid the groundwork for higher expectations in 2022. Quarterback Jalen Hurts managed the league’s 11th-ranked offense by EPA to a 9-8 record and Philly slipped into the playoffs by winning a tiebreaker over New Orleans.

A surprise draft-day trade for wide receiver A.J. Brown has generated excitement for the Eagles’ passing game, but Philly’s strength remains its offensive and defensive lines. The team’s O-line ranked third in pass block win rate in 2021, and their hog mollies graded out as the fifth best in the league in pass blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. Perhaps practicing against their teammates helped: The Philly D-line was also excellent, ranking fourth in pass rush win rate and was graded sixth-best in pass rush by PFF charters. Hopes are high in Philadelphia, and the team isn’t being overhyped. Line play in particular is (relatively) reliable from season to season, and if Hurts takes the next step while the Philly receiving corps lives up to its potential, the Eagles could make a deep run in the playoffs.

The football team formerly known as the Washington Football Team has become the Washington Commanders. Perhaps Washington’s second name change since 2020 will help the team #takecommand and refocus after a 7-10 year that saw them miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.

To help turn the page — and bolster the league’s 24th-ranked passing attack (by EPA) from last year — the Commanders added veteran quarterback Carson Wentz in a trade with the Colts. He’ll have his work cut out for him, though, and less balance to work with; while Washington’s running game was slightly better (17th in EPA) than its passing game last season, presumptive starting running back Brian Robinson Jr. will begin the season on IR after being shot in the glute and leg during an attempted robbery. Most signs point toward more problems in Landover, which is why the model gives Washington just an 18 percent chance to win the East, and projects an 8-win season for the newly-commissioned Commanders.

Finally, we have the New York Giants. Former general manager Dave Gettleman may have retired and head coach Joe Judge may have been fired, but quarterback Daniel Jones remains. New GM Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll seem to be setting Jones up for a solid shot at success in his fourth season, so there is reason for optimism. Still, the team is coming off a year to forget in East Rutherford, and high-priced wide receiver Kenny Golladay appears to be injured again. The model gives the Giants just a 12 percent chance to take the East, and New York will end the year with a decision to make: Keep Jones or let him walk in free agency. It will be up to Jones to make that decision a difficult one.

How we’re predicting the NFC North race
team elo rating proj. record make playoffs win division win super bowl
Packers 1603 11-6 74% 54% 9%
Vikings 1529 9-8 54 29 3
Lions 1414 7-10 23 9 1
Bears 1410 7-10 20 8

Simulations as of Sept. 7, 2022.

Elo rates the Green Bay Packers as the third-best team in the league, and we give them a 9 percent chance at winning the Super Bowl, tied for the highest in the NFC. The Pack finished the 2021 regular season as the No. 1 seed in the conference, and they became the only team in NFL history to finish three consecutive seasons with 13 or more wins. However, Green Bay has been unable to turn its regular season success into postseason wins. The Packers lost in the divisional round to the San Francisco 49ers and have won just two playoff games in the past three seasons.

No team is without some concerns, and in Green Bay most of them center on the wide receiver position (though some Packer fans might nominate special teams as the most questionable unit on the team). Davante Adams was traded to Sin City and Allen Lazard — a former undrafted free agent that Green Bay signed off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ taxi squad — enters the season as the Pack’s No. 1 wideout. Veterans Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins fill out the starting lineup, while promising rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs try to earn quarterback Aaron Rodgers’s trust. Rodgers is demanding of his receivers (maybe overly so), but he has the resume to back it up. He won his second straight MVP in 2021, and his fourth overall.

Defensively, the Packer secondary was quite good last season, ranking seventh in PFF’s team coverage grades. And while it’s difficult to rely on coverage because of its inconsistency from one season to the next, last year shows that Green Bay has the formula needed to succeed. They want to pass and stop the pass, and they did both well in 2021. They just have to find a way to package it up and take it with them when the postseason arrives.

The Minnesota Vikings continue to prove that merely competent QB play will usually win you enough games to keep people interested, but not enough to contend for a title. Since joining the Vikings in 2018, quarterback Kirk Cousins has led the team to records of 8-7-1, 10-6, 7-9, and 8-9. Keeping with the overall trend, we project Minnesota for 9-8 in 2022 and give them better than a coin flip’s chance to make the playoffs. With such offensive playmakers as wideout phenom Justin Jefferson, receiver Adam Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook, there are plenty of weapons at Cousins’s disposal. And if 49ers All-Pro tackle Trent Williams is right, the Vikings may have struck gold with their first-round tackle Christian Darrisaw. But no matter how large Cousins’s arsenal is, at age 34 he’s a known good-but-not-great quantity at this stage in his career. Expecting something wildly different after 10 seasons seems unrealistic.

It helps Green Bay and Minnesota’s playoff hopes that they play in the same division as the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. Both teams were bottom-10 in the league on offense and the Lions also ranked 31st on defense. Detroit is looking to restore the roar, but no matter how likable head coach Dan Campbell is, or how much he cares, the simple fact is that the Lions’ quarterback is still Jared Goff. Goff ranked 24th in QBR in 2021 and passed for just 6.6 yards per attempt. The Lions own the longest active playoff victory drought in the NFL and are probably already watching tape of Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and dreaming. Our model projects 7 wins, and just a 20 percent chance for Detroit to make the playoffs for a shot at ending their 30-year streak without a postseason win.

The Bears are kind of the anti-Vikings, but not always in a good way. Unlike Cousins, second-year signal-caller Justin Fields still possesses a hint of the tantalizing upside that made him a first-round selection a year ago. But that upside is buried pretty deep: Fields ranked dead last in QBR among qualifying passers in 2021. And unlike Minnesota, Chicago lacks playmakers to help out its quarterback. Meanwhile, the Bears’ defense finished 20th in defensive EPA, providing the offense with little margin for error. We project 7 wins for Chicago, and give them about an 8 percent chance to win the division.

How we’re predicting the NFC South race
team elo rating proj. record make playoffs win division win super bowl
Buccaneers 1605 11-6 75% 58% 9%
Saints 1519 9-8 50 28 3
Panthers 1409 7-10 21 9
Falcons 1367 6-11 11 5

Simulations as of Sept. 7, 2022.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers top the list of NFC teams in Elo rating, and we estimate a 9 percent chance that Brady wins another Super Bowl before he finally (finally?) retires to spend more time with his family. Brady passed the 600-TD milestone during his 2021 season with the Bucs en route to the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and nearly led a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback against the Rams to make it to a second consecutive Super Bowl.

The biggest concern for Tampa Bay this year is the same one that haunted the team in 2021: injuries. After a remarkably healthy 2020, the Bucs were cursed with a slew of injuries to key players the following season — including receiver Chris Godwin, cornerback Richard Sherman, running back Leonard Fournette, linebacker Lavonte David and tackle Tristan Wirfs. Already in 2022, the Bucs have lost starting center Ryan Jensen and guard Aaron Stinnie for the season. Godwin is now practicing without a brace, but he’s still questionable for Week 1 against Dallas. The O-line was critical to winning Super Bowl LV against Kansas City, and their losses will likely be felt in the trenches throughout the season.

The 2022 New Orleans Saints are without longtime head coach Sean Payton, who retired after last season. Payton’s final season in New Orleans started well: The team piled up a 5-2 record until quarterback Jameis Winston tore his ACL in Week 8 and was lost for the season. The Saints went 4-6 the rest of the way without Winston, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016. New Orleans will need both Winston and receiver Michael Thomas healthy to meet our projections and compete for a playoff spot in the South, and questions about both players’ health remain as Week 1 approaches.

The Carolina Panthers were a streaky team in 2021. They opened the season with three wins, dropped the next four, and then added another seven-game losing streak to finish out the season. An offseason trade for quarterback Baker Mayfield should help even out the team’s performance — he’s an upgrade over incumbent starter Sam Darnold (by QBR) and is playing with a chip on his shoulder after the way his tenure in Cleveland ended. His grudge match against the Browns in Week 1 should be appointment television, and the Panthers are favored to start the season with a win.

We project the Atlanta Falcons to end the season firmly in the cellar with 6 wins and less than a percentage point’s chance of winning the Super Bowl. While that might sound pessimistic, betting markets are even lower on the Falcons: Atlanta’s preseason win total is just 4.5. Veteran quarterback Marcus Mariota will begin the season as the starter, but chances are good that rookie third-round pick Desmond Ridder will get a shot to start if (or — let’s be honest — when) the season goes pear-shaped. Rookie QBs are always interesting to watch and Ridder might at least give Atlanta fans a reason to hope for the future.

How we’re predicting the NFC West race
team elo rating proj. record make playoffs win division win super bowl
Rams 1589 10-7 65% 40% 7%
49ers 1555 10-7 62 36 5
Cardinals 1498 8-9 37 16 2
Seahawks 1423 7-10 21 8

Simulations as of Sept. 7, 2022.

The defending Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams are favored to repeat as division champs — if only barely. Three out of the four Western division teams made the playoffs in 2021, and the Rams had to defeat both Arizona and San Francisco on their way to the Super Bowl. Elo views the West in 2022 as more of a two-team race this year, with the Seahawks pressing the reset button and the Cardinals taking a step back in our simulations. But the Rams will still have to fight if they want to stay on top.

Much like the Bucs and Saints, the Rams begin the season with an unsettling injury concern at a key position: quarterback. Matthew Stafford reportedly has an injured elbow, and rumors are swirling that it could linger throughout the season. The Rams’ topline talent still rivals the best in the NFL, but the prospect of an injured Stafford — whether he misses time or (more likely) just loses effectiveness while playing through the pain — makes it hard to bet on a repeat of 2021, especially in a division as tough as the NFC West.

The San Francisco 49ers seemed to have pushed all the chips in on Trey Lance to start the preseason, but the team changed its mind as the regular season drew near. Unable to find a suitable trading partner for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers instead re-signed the former starter to a reworked one-year contract that cuts Garappolo’s pay. Albert Breer reported that Lance was “a little annoyed” by the return of Jimmy G, and it’s not hard to see why. With Garoppolo back, Lance will have to constantly look over his shoulder and face awkward questions from the media if he struggles. And as a young QB with limited experience both in the pros and in college, Lance is bound to have a down week or two throughout the year.

The Arizona Cardinals would love to play the Super Bowl at home next February, and they signed quarterback Kyler Murray to a $230 million extension to keep the fever dream alive. Along the way, they inserted a clause into Murray’s contract requiring a minimum of four hours of weekly independent football study — then removed the clause when public sentiment turned against the team for leaving the impression that the Cardinals just paid hundreds of millions to a player that they didn’t fully trust. Then again, our model also has trust issues with Murray — and his teammates. We project that the Cardinals will drop below .500 in 2022, and struggle to make the playoffs.

The Seattle Seahawks project to be the worst team in the NFC West, and they might well be the worst team in the conference, too. After dealing away Russell Wilson to the Broncos, longtime head coach Pete Carroll was asked to pick between journeyman quarterback Geno Smith and mediocre ex-Denver starter Drew Lock; he apparently settled on Smith. The 31-year-old Smith has started just five games in the past six years and has thrown more interceptions (37) than touchdowns (34) over his eight-year NFL career. The Seahawks’ defense wasn’t a strength for the team in 2021, ranking 23rd in defensive EPA, so it’s hard to expect help from that side of the ball to make up for Geno and the Hawks’ offense. Seattle is firmly in the Stroud sweepstakes before Week 1 even kicks off.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.


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