If you’ve ever played The Sims, you know the feeling: laboring over the completely virtual existence of computer people and computer houses and computer jobs. In the moment, waiting for a copy of the SimCity Times to see what employment opportunities were available in the virtual computer newspaper felt more important than some of the tasks and relationships happening in the real world of the 12-year-old at the controls.
There’s a disappointingly unexplainable feeling that comes years later when realizing that the stress was entirely unnecessary because this wasn’t a real world. We could simply power down the wheezing CPU tower running Windows 95 and walk away. There’s an especially disappointing feeling when you simply trade one virtual world for another to stress over (and I’m not talking about Twitter).
This year, in trying to predict every single NFL game—an annual process that has its inherent ups and downs—I found myself especially racked with how to advance the Panthers to the playoffs and how to get the Commanders to a record more reflective of their roster. However, making a five-win team a nine-win team is like trying to remove the middle beads on a friendship bracelet. There are 15 other occurrences that have to change as a result, and at some point my patient and kind editors lose patience, especially when they’ve already spent warm, sun-kissed afternoons trying to sort out my unintended tiebreakers and playoff scenarios.
That’s when we remember that the fictional time line below exists only in my brain. (And now online.) If I had the ability to make virtual worlds of my preference come into existence, the entire planet might look something like the Catskill Mountains in late summer. Unfortunately, I put my pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of you.
With this in mind, I present to you the complete 2022 regular season, a rundown that I put a great deal of stress into but am ultimately glad to walk away from. Last year, I picked the Bengals to go 4–13. If I make a similar mistake this year, I’ll simply power down the computer and walk away.
It’s tough sledding for preseason Super Bowl favorites. It’s also tough sledding for teams that lose their offensive coordinator, in this case the coach who oversaw the development of one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Yet, there does not seem to be a responsible way to take the division crown from the Bills, who come into the writing of this post at anywhere between -214 and -230 odds to win the East. A minor hesitation: Their schedule is incredibly front-loaded, with an every-other-game pattern of pronounced difficulty until the skies clear in Week 9. That doesn’t mean the temptation to have a Patriots revival wasn’t there. It just means that Josh Allen has grown into the kind of player who can control his own offense, or at least factor heavily into its creation. Anyone who torches the Patriots as Allen did a year ago is seeing beyond the scheme.
The Patriots were another subject of great strife during this process. An earlier version on the table had them at 10–7, which, in a crowded AFC field, was still not good enough to get them into the playoffs. I mentioned back in my annual early-July post on the 12 teams that can actually win the Super Bowl, which also left the Patriots out of the postseason, that doing so almost guarantees a Super Bowl run. By comparison to the Bills, New England’s schedule is a bit more generous at the outset. There are deeper pockets of theoretically easy games (Lions, Browns without Deshaun Watson, Bears and Jets) where they can rack up both momentum and critical victories.
While I think new Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel will fare better than most people unfamiliar with his background in—and role creating—the Kyle Shanahan system, if he doesn’t beat the Patriots in Week 1, he then has to face a good Ravens team, the Bills and the Bengals in Cincinnati. Even with an extended 17-game schedule, an 0–4 start is a death sentence in the NFL. As accurate as Tua Tagovailoa might be, a quick-strike passing game isn’t exactly going to thrive against four of the best and rangiest secondaries in the NFL to start the season.
The Jets, last but not least, should be judged this year as they were last season. This isn’t necessarily about wins and losses yet. Their schedule is unforgivable, with the Ravens, Bengals, Packers, Broncos and Bills all before the bye week. The question is whether these games will be close or not. After the Jets notched wins against the playoff-bound Titans and Bengals last year, we’ve built in room to be surprised.
All right, so maybe you weren’t sitting around trying to pen the perfect told you so text when Isaiah Likely racked up 100 first-half receiving yards against the Cardinals. Not everyone has roundly celebrated Baltimore’s offseason as tirelessly as I have, which is why you see some unbridled enthusiasm here. Wins over the Jets, Dolphins, Patriots and—yes—Bills over the first four weeks should back up just how serious we really are in making the Ravens a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
The Bengals will be pleased at the idea that the world has left them largely on the cusp of Super Bowl contention, and not among the elite ring of surefire candidates, following their surprise run in 2021. While a return is always difficult, their remade defense and rebuilt offensive line should help buck the trend of Super Bowl losers making it back. Winning their initial showdown against the Ravens in Baltimore should show us where exactly this team is early on. In the weeks preceding, they should have no trouble taking care of the Jets and Dolphins. The Steelers will be difficult but undermanned at the quarterback position. If they throttle the Ravens again like they did last year, it might be time to run—not walk—to your nearest sportsbook.
Picking the Steelers over the Browns is perhaps the most controversial move of this exercise. And I can see why. Pittsburgh has an absolutely gruesome slate before the bye and a not-so-friendly slate afterward. How can you have them going 2–6 before the bye and 7–2 afterward? Two reasons: A Mike Tomlin team doesn’t lay down. And … by then it will be Kenny Pickett time. Pickett has shown a sharp amount of accuracy in the short and middle range, which should help him fare especially well against the blitz-averse Bengals and Colts, aiding the Steelers in a few win-ugly contests.
I have Cleveland winning its first game of the Deshaun Watson era because Watson can spend the next three months preparing for it specifically. The Browns will make sure he looks adequate to avoid a substantial optical gaffe (something tells me they’re more worried about him stinking on the field than the nature of the allegations against him). After that? Who knows. Will the Browns’ offensive line be healthy? Their running backs? The test, for me, would come against the Saints in Week 16. I have Cleveland beating New Orleans but deliberated over the choice for some time.
When a team-specific beat reporter or even other national outlets pick games, it’s easier to show progress on a year-by-year basis when predicting a record. For example, I would love to have the Texans at something other than 4–13, and I ultimately believe they will win more than four games this year. However, as laid out in the intro, those wins have to come at the expense of someone or something else that makes more common sense at the moment. Anyone who is picking records without picking every game is conveniently shedding that burden.
Keep that in mind as we look first at the Colts, who have one of their Texans games and both of their Jaguars games within the first six weeks of the season. And while Urban Meyer is no longer patrolling the sidelines in Jacksonville, Indianapolis has a roster superior to last year’s group and a more settled quarterback situation. Matt Ryan could get hot early, before the wear of the season gets to him. That’s why I have the Colts front-loading wins and struggling a bit down the stretch, losing to the (presumably) Kenny Pickett–led Steelers and the Raiders in Las Vegas.
The Titans finish with the same record, but lose the tiebreaker here due to a 4–2 division record (and miss out on the playoffs entirely, thanks largely to the stacked AFC West). I sense some urgency in Nashville in developing a secondary quarterback option, which means a more realistic understanding of what Ryan Tannehill can and can’t do. I view the Titans as just a sliver below the Colts. The game everyone is probably curious about is a season-ending loss to the Jaguars in Jacksonville. This is not a Mike Vrabel game to lose and we already have Jacksonville playing an uncharacteristic, spoiler-type role this season. But … Trevor Lawrence will have had a full season in Doug Pederson’s system by then. In this scenario, he has a glimpse-of-the-future type of game against an elite defense and coordinator.
Speaking of the Jaguars, I think this is an overly fair breakdown. Because Indianapolis and Tennessee are so good, it was hard to try to play them into fringe wild-card contention, but 8–9 would represent a resounding success for Pederson in Year 1. We get a little cheeky here, with the Jaguars starting the season on a skid before, in a very poetic way, getting their first win in the Pederson Bowl against the Eagles in Philadelphia.
And, in Houston, I think we’ll see just how far the Texans can go with Davis Mills. I love the 2023 quarterback class, especially Kentucky’s Will Levis, and I don’t think this is a scenario that would break the hearts of Houston’s front office. I have the Texans winning the games they obviously should, and while I passed up the opportunity to give them a signature upset, which they will undoubtedly have, this scratchy look at Houston’s schedule puts them in an ideal position to draft for the future yet again.
The best part about having Russell Wilson in this division is he can play foil to so many other talented teams. Both the Chargers and the Chiefs, my two picks for the top of the division, face the Broncos in the final two weeks of the season. I gave a slight edge to the Chargers because I think last year’s offense, which was top 10 in most major EPA (expected points added) categories, will now be buoyed by a defense that will fare far better than the one Brandon Staley trotted out a year ago. It’s almost impossible for the team, which upgraded its pass rush, run fits and secondary, to be any worse. And it would seem, as we’ve mentioned when discussing last season’s Week 18 loss to the Raiders, that Staley will not be as hamstrung by his personnel.
Out of all the teams in this entire piece, I felt the Chiefs’ breakdown was the fairest, with Kansas City winning as many of the big games (home against the Chargers, at the 49ers, home versus the Rams) as it loses. The team that has played in the last four AFC championship games will, of course, dominate the lower rung of its schedule, and a campaign that looks a little rocky at the outset will be lifted by the fact that the Chiefs round out the season with the Texans and Seahawks in back-to-back weeks, a slump-busting slate if there ever was one.
Speaking of the Houston–Seattle swing, the Broncos open the season with those two teams, and will take their momentum on the front end. Getting Wilson to 2–0 opens up a lot of possibilities on this schedule, even if the Broncos are still flawed from a personnel standpoint. If they are competitive, many of us are going to skip ahead to the end of the season, where they will have to weather a road game against the Rams, a road game against the Chiefs and a wintry home date with the Chargers to close the year out. This is as unforgiving as it gets. Will they have banked the wins when it mattered?
We’ll close this out with the Raiders, who I have finishing with a winning record. Obviously we can’t hoist all four of these teams into the playoffs, but I could very easily see Las Vegas and Denver swapping places here. The Raiders’ challenge will be hanging tough during a season-opening gantlet that, every other week, features road games against the best quarterbacks or overall teams in the conference (Chargers, Titans, Chiefs). I have them faring well against most of the teams they should beat, and Josh McDaniels wrecking his former boss Bill Belichick, this time with less of a noteworthy midfield handshake. However, I do have them also losing to the Jaguars in a game where Doug Pederson reclaims some of his Patriot-beating magic from a few Februaries ago.
I assume this is one of the divisions that will draw the most vitriol and understandably so. To the Giants fans, I say: I think this is what needs to happen, and I think everyone understands that. To the Commanders fans, I truly apologize. I felt totally hemmed in by this exercise. Around this time last year, I was positing the team as a budget Tampa Bay. They upgraded at the quarterback and wide receiver positions … and I stuck them with a 5–12 record anyway. If I didn’t have to balance my thoughts with the zero-sum nature of 272 wins and 272 losses, I would have ideally had them closer to 8–9, though I’m not sure if it’s more of a consolation or not.
The Cowboys take the division because they have the best quarterback in the NFC East, and one of the two best quarterbacks in the NFL at extending difficult plays and winning late downs. This is inherent in Dak Prescott, and, no matter the offense, will always be something he does particularly well. After losing the season opener to the Buccaneers (I picked the games before Tom Brady absconded to dress up for The Masked Singer), I have Dallas behaving like a big brother should, with the exception of a very on-brand random loss to the Giants. My hope is that Brian Daboll will make this more of a rivalry again, and I expect he will.
The Eagles are going to surprise people if Jalen Hurts can play consistently toward his fixed ceiling. I love their first six games, which should help get the Eagles off on the right foot, especially the Lions, Vikings and Commanders to open up the season, and a Cardinals team that (we’ll get to down below) is destined to come back to Earth a little bit. Also, having both the Bears and the Giants in their final four weeks is a massive aid for a team that will be scrapping for a playoff spot.
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The Commanders, as we said, are going to be better than 5–12. They just are. But in this rendition of The Sims, the house catches on fire, and we haven’t purchased an extinguisher. This just happens sometimes. It happens to good coaches and good teams. This isn’t Carson Wentz–blaming. It isn’t passive-aggressive Daniel Snyder punishing. It’s just looking at a bunch of squares and saying: O.K., the Lions on the road Week 2 is tough, so is Philadelphia at home the next week, so is Dallas on the road the week after, so is Tennessee at home the week after that. What if this thing gets out of hand?
After watching the Giants this preseason, there’s no doubt they will be better coached, and in that vein we’ve awarded them with some clear upsets over the Vikings and Cowboys, while also getting them wins against an inferior Seahawks team. My caveat here is that many of these losses will be close, which I think is what the Giants ultimately care about this year. Dave Gettleman did not misread where the NFL was heading in building this roster, but he missed on the players it would take to get them there. So, you have a true rebuild in every sense. Again, I think co-owner John Mara is braced for this. I don’t think he would have gotten a good GM like Joe Schoen to take this job expecting a playoff run in 2022.
Here, the Packers start the season 1–2. Just like last year, their opener leaves them vulnerable to a team that spent the entire offseason prodding for soft spots in the outside-zone offense (remember that Saints game in Jacksonville in 2021?). After starting the season 1–2, amid a swath of Aaron Rodgers–on-mushrooms jokes, the Packers will then rip off a six-game winning streak against the weakest part of their schedule and go 9–1 into the bye week. By then, it’s time for AJ Dillon to drop the hammer through the winter months.
The Vikings, as I’ve mentioned a few times this offseason, are a team I would have liked to sneak into the playoffs. While I didn’t plan it this way, getting them into a tiebreaker scenario to miss out on the last spot in the NFC felt perfect. They are an ideal bounceback candidate, with the heaviness of the Mike Zimmer era lifting a bit and a new offensive play-caller coming in to work with the efficient Kirk Cousins. I have the Vikings pulling two relative stunners, beating Green Bay in the opener and Dallas later in the season, but the rest of the season is Minnesota winning the coin-flip games they probably should. I think this is possible by virtue of changing their defensive scheme and upgrading their offensive staff.
The Lions were another trendy team for which I wanted to show evidence of progress. If I were covering the Lions exclusively and didn’t have to worry about picking all games, for example, I’d probably flip these numbers and finish them at 10–7. Unable to justify that here, I did award them with an outsized, Dan Campbell–ian victory over the Bills late in the season. I know Bills fans are going to hate this, but the Lions are going to pull off at least one massive upset this year in the absence of a sustainably good season.
And then we get to the Bears. Justin Fields looks better this preseason, but that offensive line is going to give him fits. He’s not going to be able to allow the offense to progress as designed. I would bet on Matt Eberflus putting a formidable defense together and coaching well, but I don’t see more than seven wins here, with there being a legitimate argument to flip the Jets game and possibly the Texans game, plus an upset.
Panthers fans: apology coming in a few minutes. For now, obviously the Buccaneers are winning this division. Barring some kind of foreign-government-backed ouster of Brady to some franchise where he can clandestinely pair with Sean Payton midseason, he will sleepwalk the Bucs to a 12–5 record and one of the top seeds in the NFC.
Now to the part where it gets interesting …
My hope was to land the Saints close enough to the No. 7 seed where they could back in. I have said multiple times this offseason, after chiding myself for not seeing it, that this is a roster good enough to make the playoffs in theory. In practice, they may end up looking more like the Buccaneers before Brady arrived: a talented receiving corps and a great defense, but not enough consistency from the quarterback position to survive stretches of the season where they’ll face six good teams in six weeks from Weeks 6 to 12, all with vastly different strengths defensively.
The Panthers, I feel, are going to be much better than 5–12. Consider this another Commanders-like apology. If I had a second crack at this Sims universe, I’d go full schadenfreude, tanking the Browns from Week 11 onward and having the Panthers slip into the No. 7 seed in the NFC. I struggled with making that a primary option when I couldn’t even say with absolute certainty that they’d sweep the Falcons, despite seeing them twice in three weeks.
And about those Falcons? I could see them competing with the Bears for the right to take a QB No. 1 in this year’s draft. They don’t do much for me outside of cover well and line up a good deal of receivers who may not get a ton of balls. I gave them a fluke win over the 49ers, which helped bolster their win total because they know the offense well and still have a talented, penetrating defensive tackle who could upend a game plan.
I wrote about Trey Lance last year with the excitement that some 1960s newspaper columnists reserved for the space program. I’m going to be a little peeved if it all comes to fruition seamlessly in 2022, because only true narcissists can spend most of their time shouting out their old stories on Twitter. This exercise is about calling our shots in the now, and so we’re playing it a bit safe.
As you can see, we built in an up-and-down start for the defending Super Bowl champions with most of their progress coming after the bye. Maybe the Rams are still adjusting to the new normal with Matthew Stafford’s shoulder, or maybe they’re just discovering who they are in the Allen Robinson–Cooper Kupp era. Regardless, after the bye, this team is predictably nasty, ripping off the kinds of wins toward the end of the season (at Green Bay and at the Chargers) that lead us to believe another deep playoff run is on tap.
The 49ers, as we said, are going to be good. But they could also be 13–4 good. Really. Lance is special, and that offense, as we’ve said ad nauseum, still hasn’t been effectively stopped with nonmobile quarterbacks at the helm. There could also be a reason they were slow-playing Jimmy Garoppolo for the last two years. Lance may not be able to operate within the offense to make it work the way we’d all imagine. Regardless, getting the Panthers, Seahawks and Bears, mostly on the road, early in the season is a godsend. Lance gets to stay away from the noise and beat up on some softer defenses (assuming Carolina struggles a bit to maintain a top-10 EPA per play defense).
If you listen to The MMQB NFL Podcast, and you should, you’ve heard cohost Gary Gramling’s expert thesis on the Cardinals’ luck regression in 2022. I bought in. Also, the Chiefs, Raiders and Rams to start the season? After the tumultuous offseason the Cardinals had? I wish them the best of luck. That said, I do have them sneaking into the playoffs at 8–9, winning the tiebreaker over the Vikings thanks to a head-to-head road win in Week. 8
At the bottom, predictably, are the Seahawks. There’s not much to say here. If you’re selling me on either Geno Smith or Drew Lock, I’m having a hard time finding more than four wins. They turned out to be a font of convenience for me in this exercise, giving me guilt-free victories where I needed them for other teams. I also have them pulling a stunner over the 49ers late in the season, because Pete Carroll deserves to show the world he still has that swag.
And here are my playoff standings, taking all relevant tiebreakers into account.
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