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?

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 draft coming very soon, there’s a real chance that certain teams could make enough improvements to challenge for the Lombardi Trophy far quicker than anyone would’ve 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: Los Angeles Chargers

Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs cut loose their previous offensive tackles in Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. Their replacements got manhandled in Super Bowl LV against Tampa Bay, and there’s no clear plan in sight for Kansas City to improve there.

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 the AFC West title.

Staley is inheriting a phenomenal young quarterback in Justin Herbert. Having someone like Herbert under center is at least half the battle for new coaches. 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.

Speaking of bad offensive lines, if we’re going to criticize the Chiefs, LA had the NFL’s worst according to Pro Football Focus in 2020. It’s a wonder Herbert played as well as he did — and an encouraging tell as to what he could do with decent men in the trenches.

That unit is really the only problem area for the Chargers, but they’ve signed Corey Linsley at center and can draft a lineman in the first round.

Think about how the Cleveland Browns went from one of the worst o-lines in 2019 to the very best in all of football and made the playoffs this past season. It’s possible the Bolts do something very similar.

AFC North champions: Cleveland Browns

Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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. 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.

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.

General manager Andrew Berry bolstered the secondary in free agency with John Johnson III and Troy Hill, and 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.

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: Jacksonville Jaguars

Predicting NFL playoff teams and Super Bowl 2022 winner: Jaguars shock the world, win AFC South
Feb 12, 2021; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence works out as Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer (right) looks on during Pro Day in Clemson, South Carolina. Mandatory Credit: David Platt/Handout Photo via 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. 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. However, they lost offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to Atlanta. What does that mean for Ryan Tannehill? And how much longer can Derrick Henry lead the NFL in rushing before he wears down?

Call us crazy, but once Urban Meyer gets his hands on Trevor Lawrence with the draft’s No. 1 overall pick, and assuming two more instant starters come aboard via the draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars seem like the team to win the AFC South in 2021.

Lawrence is going to have an instant, transformative impact on the Jaguars organization, along with Meyer. The prodigious quarterback will inherit a decent offensive line and cast of skill position players, both of which can be added to in the draft.

It’s a lot to ask of Lawrence early, but remember how Andrew Luck took Indianapolis to the playoffs in his maiden pro campaign? Yeah, Lawrence is that type of guy. Meyer has also won instantly in all of his prior stops. As long as Jacksonville doesn’t mess up the draft, I don’t see that changing in Duval County.

AFC East champions: Buffalo Bills

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 Emmanuel Sanders. 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, and much of the secondary is still intact.

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. How much the Bills improve in that area will determine their chances at a Super Bowl.

AFC Wild Card predictions: Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens

Super Bowl 2022: Will Kansas City Chiefs play in Big Game for third year in a row?
Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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. Just because they don’t win the division doesn’t mean they’re going anywhere. 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. Edwards-Helaire can create lots of yards after contact, so look for Reid and Bieniemy to commit more to the run, which will help Mahomes’ longevity.

Don’t sleep on the Chiefs’ 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.

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. Tagovailoa should benefit from a fuller training camp and starter’s reps 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 need to adjust on offense, however, and not rely on Lamar Jackson running so much.

NFC West champions: Los Angeles Rams

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, 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 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.

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

NFC North champions: Green Bay Packers

Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Can we just pause for a second and realize how brilliant Packers head coach Matt LaFleur has been? 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. Green Bay’s defense should 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. The front office just 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

Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady
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 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.

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 scary for whoever is facing the Bucs.

Carolina and Atlanta are in relative rebuilds, and New Orleans is working its way out of salary cap hell, leaving Tampa Bay as the prohibitive favorite in the NFC South.

NFC East champions: New York Giants

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.

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.

The Washington Football Team field a great defense, but again, that pesky quarterback position is a big question mark with the wildly inconsistent Ryan Fitzpatrick in place.

As for the Philadelphia Eagles Jalen Hurts doesn’t have to deal with Carson Wentz’s nonsense, yet there are doubts as to whether he’s ready to lead a dysfunctional organization to the playoffs.

That leaves New York. Joe Judge has endeared himself to fans in the Big Apple for his no-nonsense approach and workmanlike mentality. The Giants’ free-agent acquisitions of No. 1 receiver Kenny Golladay and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson are only going to help the cause, too.

NFC Wild Card predictions: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings

Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

So yes, Arizona and San Francisco represent the NFC West along with the Rams, meaning the Seattle Seahawks are on the outside looking in. That’s primarily due to the ongoing buzz about a possible trade involving superstar quarterback Russell Wilson.

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 a top-flight rookie 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. The pressure is on, because if Arizona doesn’t make the postseason, his 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.

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.

As long as head coach Mike Zimmer galvanizes the defense during the 2021 campaign and the pass rush improves with Danielle Hunter back in action, look for the Vikings to right the ship and make the postseason.

So who will win Super Bowl LVI?

Oct 25, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) and quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) celebrate the come from behind victory in the waning seconds against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

What a question to ponder.

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 following the draft.

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 Browns in the AFC Championship Game, and the Rams benefit from having Stafford at quarterback enough to upset Green Bay in the second 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 free agents 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.