Welcome to another NFL season. If you do not already know the minute details of what is happening with the league’s 32 franchises, congratulations on your media consumption habits. The NFL has slowly but surely usurped basically the entire sporting calendar, to the point that it has the most-covered American sporting events or close to them not just in the fall but in February and March (the scouting combine), April (the draft), May (the freaking schedule release TV special, even though by this time everyone already knows the identities of their home and away opponents), and July and August (training camps).
There is nothing wrong with giving in. The NFL owns us already. You will give this corporation roughly 10 hours of your Sunday on a weekly basis for the next four months. In that spirit, please accept Slate’s field guide of where everyone stands entering Thursday night’s season opener between the Buffalo Bills and defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. For whom are things good, and for whom are things bad? Here is what I hope is a helpful division-by-division indexing on the eve of the season.
In the AFC East, the New York Jets will continue to produce pain—pain for a fanbase that has seen an astonishing 11 missed playoffs in a row, and pain for Zach Wilson, Joe Flacco, and whoever else might have to play quarterback. Left tackle Mekhi Becton will miss another season, ensuring the QBs get hit a lot. Elsewhere in the state of New York, the Bills will be great. Josh Allen is playing on god mode. An open question is whether the rest of the team will be merely solid or good enough to make the Bills a Super Bowl team. The New England Patriots have a rare chance to be bad, as they lost star cornerback J.C. Jackson in free agency and may struggle to find the turnovers that sustained them so often in 2021. They’ll need a big second-year leap from QB Mac Jones, who did show a lot last year. The Miami Dolphins will try again with Tua Tagovailoa, whose arm strength has been a constant punchline on the football internet. Trading for the fastest man in football should help Tagovailoa’s cause, at least.
Off in AFC North, the Cincinnati Bengals arrive as defending division champs for the first time since 2016. Famous last words with this team, but the Bengals should be good. They have offensive skill players galore, headlined by QB Joe Burrow and wideout Ja’Marr Chase. Their offensive line was a decisive liability in the Super Bowl, but some free-agent additions ought to calm that down. Their main competition should be the Baltimore Ravens, whose biggest game this season is not really on the field: It’s in contract negotiations, and it’s ongoing.* If Lamar Jackson doesn’t sign an extension, the whole year will be fraught. The Pittsburgh Steelers may make noise after sneaking into the playoffs last year. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and lineman Cameron Heyward give Pittsburgh one of the NFL’s best tandems. The quarterback is Mitchell Trubisky, who is probably not good but almost literally cannot be worse than Ben Roethlisberger’s skeleton, which suited up for the Steelers last year. The Cleveland Browns are a cynical embarrassment and will play a backup QB for the first 11 games.
The AFC West may be the conference’s most interesting division, with all four teams looking like plausible playoff participants. The Las Vegas Raiders traded for Packers All-Pro Davante Adams, one of the best wide receivers in a golden era for great wide receivers. The Denver Broncos (now more or less the property of Walmart) traded for Russell Wilson, the future Hall of Fame QB. Wilson is probably past the peaks he reached in Seattle, but he remains an excellent player and will be a massive, immediate lift for a Broncos offense that includes several talented young receivers, running backs, and tight ends. The Kansas City Chiefs no longer have Hill, but they still have Patrick Mahomes, who threatens to be the best QB in the league in any given year, and the league’s top tight end, Travis Kelce. Their defense, as has often been the case, is likely to be putrid. K.C. also has a great punter. Keep an eye on the booming right leg and flowing mane of Tommy Townsend, who bashes majestic punts that often wind up inside the opposing 10-yard line. The Los Angeles Chargers have Justin Herbert, who most people seem to now agree is one of the five or six best QBs in all the land. Herbert has a great running back (Austin Ekeler) and a good wideout tandem (Keenan Allen and Mike Williams), and the defense has stars like Joey Bosa and Derwin James, plus cornerback Jackson from the Patriots. I think I’m picking the Chargers to win the Super Bowl, though get back to me.
The AFC South will also play football this year. The Houston Texans have very little going for them that might make them a watchable outfit, but it’s good to remember that everything is relative and even a bad NFL team is one of the most incredible collections of athletes in the world. Let’s hope for a lot of interceptions on the part of rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. The Tennessee Titans have a collection of talented pass-rushers (Bud Dupree, Harold Landry, and more), and they also may present the chance to watch multitalented rookie QB Malik Willis in the event of a Ryan Tannehill injury or (less likely) benching. The Indianapolis Colts will perhaps be very boring on both sides of the ball. Their new defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, is the king of sitting back and hoping the opposing QB makes a mistake. Their QB is Matt Ryan, who is old now but is not as painful to watch as 2021 signal-caller Carson Wentz. And with a chance to move into third place? The Jacksonville Jaguars, who’ve picked first in two straight drafts. They have Trevor Lawrence, one of the most hyped passers to come through the draft in years, and their head coach is no longer a post-several-midlife-crises Urban Meyer. So that’s good.
The NFC East is an object of national frustration, in that the NFL’s broadcast partners spoon-feed its teams to us even when they are not compelling in any way. The New York Giants will keep trotting Daniel Jones out at quarterback for one more year, and they should be bad enough to get a better QB near the top of the 2023 draft. The Washington Commanders have a strong defensive line that should keep them in a lot of games. They’ll need it, too, because they’re the latest team to sign up for a trip on the Wentz merry-go-round, for whatever reason. The highlight of Wentz’s training camp was a reporter telling him the obvious truth, that his last two teams summarily decided they did not want him, and asked him if he saw Washington as his last shot to stick as a starting QB. The team president got mad about that. Congress is still investigating the team’s workplace environment. It’ll be another good year. The Philadelphia Eagles are going to find out for sure this fall if they have a suitable franchise QB in Jalen Hurts, who’s been promising but up-and-down in his first two seasons. Philly has surrounded Hurts with a great offensive line and this offseason traded for Titans receiver A.J. Brown, a year after drafting Heisman Trophy–winning receiver DeVonta Smith. This is his moment if there’s ever going to be one. The Dallas Cowboys will be requisitely dramatic and somewhere between mediocre and pretty good, per usual. But watch second-year outside linebacker Micah Parsons, a potential Defensive Player of the Year.
Shifting to the NFC North, the Chicago Bears have Justin Fields. He’s got a lot of talent. I thought he was the best non-Lawrence QB prospect in 2021. They gave him no support in his rookie year and almost certainly will not make things a lot better in his second year. The defense is also bad, and the leader of said defense asked for a trade this summer before returning to practice. It’s not a good situation. The Detroit Lions also play in this division and, aside from the two New York teams, may be the hardest one to discuss on any positive terms. Rookie defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, a Michigan hero from his college days in Ann Arbor, is likely good. The Minnesota Vikings are no longer doing the Mike Zimmer thing at head coach but are still doing the Kirk Cousins thing at quarterback. It will yield typical results: a pretty nice season, pretty nice stats, and not much in the way of contention, despite Cousins having a solid defense, receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and tailback Dalvin Cook at his disposal. The Green Bay Packers are still an Aaron Rodgers–and–Matt LaFleur operation, which means they will be great. I am tired of learning new things about Rodgers and wish to opt out of anything further.
The NFC West has a little more going on. The Arizona Cardinals are pinning their hopes on Kyler Murray having a better touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio than kill-to-death ratio on Call of Duty. (There is a reason I’m making this unbelievably hacky joke. Just trust that it’s the Cardinals’ fault, not mine.) The San Francisco 49ers are pivoting to their QB of the future in Trey Lance, but they’ve taken the intriguing step of retaining their QB of the past, Jimmy Garoppolo, to be an uber-expensive backup. What that says or doesn’t say about their belief in Lance for 2022 is open to your interpretation. The young passer will have the benefit of a fantastic defense, led by linebacker Fred Warner and end Nick Bosa. The Rams are the defending Super Bowl champions and should be right back in the mix, assuming Aaron Donald remains Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp remains Cooper Kupp. They lost future Hall of Fame edge rusher Von Miller and very good wideout Odell Beckham Jr. but added receiver Allen Robinson and inside backer Bobby Wagner. The latter comes to the Rams via the Seattle Seahawks, who preemptively waved a white flag on their season and will be slogging around with some combination of Geno Smith and Drew Lock under center. It’s not going to be a good year on Puget Sound.
And at last, there is the NFC South. The Carolina Panthers are starting Baker Mayfield at quarterback, and that is an upgrade given that Sam Darnold played the position for them a year ago. Mayfield’s relationship with his last team, the Browns, deteriorated over the course of 2021 in part because he kept getting destroyed, and that is likely to continue behind another bad offensive line. The Atlanta Falcons are amid a rebuild and will probably have to draft a quarterback in the spring, so this year is just about getting through it and having some fun with cheat-code tight end Kyle Pitts and cornerback A.J. Terrell. The New Orleans Saints are a bit of a tweener, kind of like the Steelers: They have a maybe-not-terrible but far from great QB (Jameis Winston), some really good and youngish skill position players (Alvin Kamara, Chris Olave, Michael Thomas), and a defense that is likely to carry the most weight. Whether that means a playoff appearance is hard to say. The heavy divisional favorites are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You’ll get older this year. Tom Brady, who is 45, once again will not.
Correction, Sept. 8, 2022: This article originally misstated that Wink Martindale is the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator. The team fired him in January.