One of the most unpredictable NFL seasons in recent memory is finished. Another year of COVID-19 delays along with exceptional parity meant the NFL saw plenty of upsets in 2022 combined with a record 34 games decided on the final play, which portends an especially messy playoff bracket.
That said, Sporting News’ predictions from the preseason held up fairly well against all the chaos.
The team we projected to win Super Bowl 56 finished 12-5, is the AFC’s No. 2 seed and a popular pick to return to the big game for a third consecutive year. And in the NFC, we correctly picked six of the seven playoff teams. However, we did whiff on the Browns’ faceplant along with the Ravens, Chargers and Seahawks.
But the 2022 playoff bracket is a chance to start fresh.
Below are Sporting News’ predictions for the 2022 NFL playoffs, complete with fresh Super Bowl picks, as our NFL experts Vinnie Iyer, Bill Bender, Matt Lutovsky, Jacob Camenker, Edward Sutelan and Peter Socotch weigh in on the bracket, taking into account what we learned about all 14 playoff teams over the course of the season.
NFL playoff picks, predictions 2022
Cardinals. This might be the easy answer given they were the best team earlier in the season and have the best record of all the wild cards. But Kyler Murray is a dangerous playmaker who can do what it takes to win games with his arm and feet in a multiple and versatile offense. The defense also has some big-time big-play ability to change games in a blink.
Patriots. Yep, Bill Belichick is back and the Patriots have an elite defense that allowed just 17.4 points per game. New England has the fifth-best turnover margin among the playoff teams, too. Belichick has to bank on a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones, and yes, the possibility of meeting Tom Brady in the playoffs exists. What a story that could be.
49ers. The Patriots might be the best choice here because they have the best coach and best defense, but this iteration of the 49ers – at least the coach/quarterback combo – has been to the Super Bowl recently. San Francisco also has a strong running game, playmakers at all receiving positions, and a solid defense that’s really found its pass rush down the stretch. That’s the recipe for a deep January/February run. The NFC is tough at the top, so it won’t be easy for San Francisco to wade its way through, but the pieces are in place for the 49ers.
Patriots. New England isn’t exactly your garden variety No. 6 seed. The greatest coach of all time, the best rookie QB in the league, a defense that’s among the best, and an offense that can play a good ball-control game. Would it really shock anyone to see the Patriots make it to the AFC championship game? Probably not.
49ers. They don’t have many weaknesses. They have a strong offensive line, two elite weapons in Deebo Samuel and George Kittle and a defensive front-seven that can get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. There are just two bones to pick with San Francisco. First, they have a shaky cornerback room that is relying on some young players to keep it afloat. Second, Jimmy Garoppolo is prone to the occasional game where he completely implodes. Still, the 49ers are one of the most balanced teams to make the playoffs and it should surprise nobody if they manage to beat the Cowboys in Round 1 and give the Packers a run for their money.
Patriots. It’s just impossible to count out Bill Belichick. Even with a rookie quarterback, the Patriots have shown that when they’re hot, there aren’t many teams that can beat them. That defense can hold up with the several high-powered offenses in the AFC, and Mac Jones and the underrated rushing attack in New England should be able to score enough points to win some games. The AFC field feels like there’s no one, dominant team, which opens up a path for the team with the best coach to make a run.
Patriots. There are three certainties in life— death, taxes, and Bill Belichick in the postseason. It’s never wise to bet against “the hoodie.” Let’s not forget that almost every AFC playoff team held the No. 1 spot in the conference this season. So, a 6-seed for the Pats shouldn’t be alarming. New England has been a sleeper all season To open the playoffs, they get the Bills, where Bill Belichick holds a 36-8 record against the division rival since becoming the Pats head coach, including a 19-3 record at Buffalo. That’s a good start.
Titans. The Chiefs and Bills got good wild-card draws in rematches and the No. 4 Bengals also are in a good spot to advance. Cincinnati matches up well with Tennessee because of Joe Burrow capable of taking over in a high-volume passing game with wide receivers who will cause matchup problems for that secondary. Between Burrow, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, there are three QBs to like much more to vie for an AFC championship than Ryan Tannehill.
Cowboys. Dallas has one of best offenses going into the playoffs, but they also have a tough matchup against the 49ers. San Francisco won four of its last five games, has a tough-to-defend running game and a pass rush led by Nick Bosa. The 49ers made a Super Bowl run two years ago, too.
Cowboys. Dallas can win by 30 just as easily as it can struggle to score and lose to an inferior opponent. There are plenty of reasons to like this Cowboys’ squad, but its playmaking defense has struggled the past two weeks against playoff-bound teams (including Philadelphia’s backups) and its high-flying offense doesn’t always answer the bell when needed. Plus, a first-round matchup against the 49ers won’t be easy.
Cowboys. Dallas is good for a clunker every now and then, and some wishy-washy performances by Dak Prescott down the stretch have given people enough cause for pause. Mike McCarthy’s reputation of being a poor situational coach is going to be put to the test early on with the run-heavy 49ers.
Titans. I know that they have posted an 8-3 record against teams with a winning record this season, but their schedule looks daunting after their bye. They will face some stiff competition from some combination of the Chiefs, Bills, Bengals and Patriots as they look to make it to the Super Bowl. Three of those teams have better quarterbacks than Ryan Tannehill, so if Derrick Henry can’t return and be healthy, it may be hard for Tennessee to keep pace in a back-and-forth offensive battle.
Cowboys. Every year the Cowboys make the playoffs, it feels like they’re primed to make a run. And every time, they disappoint. Dallas might have had the No. 1 offense in the NFL this past year, but it also had six games against Washington, Philadelphia and New York, but all three defenses were mediocre at best in 2021. Without Micah Parsons, the defense also allowed 26 points to a preseason Eagles’ offense.
Cowboys. A perennial championship contender, the three-seed Cowboys have only made the playoffs 8 times since 2000 and have never made it past the divisional round. The NFC East champs come into the playoffs hot and have all of the puzzle pieces make a deep run in the playoffs. But will they be able to put it together? They get a 49ers team that has equal of greater momentum with a Jimmy G led comeback win over the Rams, which punched their ticket into the playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers. Now one needs to wonder whether this drama with him that has developed throughout the offseason and regular season was a sneaky way to further motivate himself for yet another MVP-caliber season and a smokescreen to help them focus and somehow fly a bit under the radar as a more complete team among the contenders. The secret eventually got out that the Packers have emerged all-around as the team to beat. Should Rodgers stay on point, they should beat everyone else.
Aaron Rodgers. For all the offseason and in-season drama, the two-time MVP has been amazing on the field. That’s what matters most. Before Week 18 against the Lions, Rodgers hit more than 70% of his passes in four straight games and hasn’t thrown a pick since Week 11. Last year’s NFC championship loss against Tampa Bay showed how fleeting that success can be, but Rodgers appears on a mission for that second Super Bowl.
Patrick Mahomes. Remember him. Mahomes has seemingly been playing second fiddle to other star QBs since Kansas City’s Super Bowl loss last year. Whether it’s been Kyler Murray, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, or Aaron Rodgers, Mahomes has been on the outside looking in of the MVP conversation. It’s time for him to reclaim his throne as the NFL’s best QB in the playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers. Nothing could stop him in 2021: Not COVID, or a pinky toe or weird appearances on the “Pat McAfee Show.” MVP is a quarterback award, after all, and when you look up and down both conferences, not a single team in the playoffs has a below-average passer.
Patrick Mahomes. It feels like he’s coming off a down year, but he generated 4,839 passing yards and 37 touchdown passes while completing 66.3 percent of his passes. Sure, he struggled with interceptions at times — he has 13 on the season, a new career-high — but he has played very well, especially recently. He should be able to feast upon the teams in the AFC, though his MVP chances will hinge slightly on his secondary showing up against top-tier passing attacks.
Aaron Rodgers. This has to be the year the Packers get it done, right? They’ve looked dominant this season, and it’s been due in no small part to Rodgers, who again has put up MVP numbers at 37. In his final seven games of the regular season, he completed 72 percent of his passes for 1,929 yards, 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Entering the playoffs as a 38-year-old QB, he’s going to keep the momentum going into the postseason and finally pick up ring No. 2.
Patrick Mahomes. If Mahomes can somehow shake off the biggest slump of his career and help his team advance to and win another Super Bowl, it would be the greatest accomplishment of his career. It comes with a major caveat of IF he can do it. Considering how wide open the AFC feels, Mahomes would get my vote.
Allen Lazard. It’s already somewhat happened, his emergence as a legitimate trusted No. 2 wide receiver opposite Davante Adams given all the big catches he made late in the season. But it should take on more importance with the stakes raised as he’s made the Packers’ passing game much harder to defend. Rodgers having him and Brady not having Chris Godwin is the little thing to title the power from one all-time great NFC QB to another.
Tee Higgins. We all know about Ja’Marr Chase, who might win Rookie of the Year. Higgins, however, had four 100-yard outings in Cincinnati’s last seven games, and he’s going to get favorable coverage. The Bengals are good enough with Joe Burrow to make a playoff run, and Higgins could be that breakout performer because he’s a reliable target.
AJ Dillon. His nicknames are “Quadzilla” and “Quadfather,” so there’s plenty of fodder for the announcers if he starts running over opponents in any of the Packers’ playoff games. Dillon has become the 1B – if not the 1A – to Aaron Jones in Green Bay’s backfield, so even though the Packers won’t play opening weekend, Dillon has a chance to plow over defenders deep into the playoffs and earn a level of recognition beyond just those in 12-team fantasy football leagues.
Elijah Mitchell. Is it fair to call a fantasy darling like Mitchell under-the-radar? The rookie running back has rushed for 963 yards and has 1,100 scrimmage yards over just 11 games in 2021. On the big stage, Mitchell will break out.
Cedrick Wilson. The Cowboys are looking for a third receiver to step up in wake of Michael Gallup’s torn ACL, and Wilson looked the part during his 100-yard, two-TD game against the Eagles in Week 18. Wilson is developing good chemistry with Dak Prescott and flashed at times in place of Gallup earlier in the season.
The Cowboys need a third target to step up and take pressure off CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper. As such, Wilson will be able to make some plays. He may not be a full-blown star, per se, but he will become more of a household name if he can take advantage of his opportunity.
Chidobe Awuzie. If the Bengals are going to go far, it won’t be because of that offense that has garnered so much praise in recent weeks. It’s going to be because their defense steps up and contains some of the offensive firepower in the AFC. They key to that will be cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. He finished the year as the highest rated cornerback in the AFC, per Pro Football Focus, and turned in his best game against the Chiefs, when he shut down Tyreek Hill to just six receptions for 40 yards.
Allen Lazard. The Packers wide receiver has earned the trust and respect of his quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Iowa State product has pulled in 8 touchdowns this season, almost as many as his counterpart DeVante Adams, who has more than three times the yards and twice as many receptions. With teams likely keying on Adams, Lazard could be poised for a great postseason.
Packers. Rodgers is hyper-efficient and the mistakes haven’t happened of late. They are equally deep and dangerous running or passing and should get healthier in some key spots for the playoffs. There are plenty of high-scoring offenses that can suddenly explode, but because of Rodgers and Matt LaFleur, the Packers were the steadiest even if they sometimes weren’t the flashiest.
Buccaneers. That’s the Tom Brady effect. The Buccaneers average 30.1 points per game, and despite injuries to key players Brady is still at the controls. This team made a run from wild card to the Super Bowl championship last season. As odd as it sounds, they might be undervalued in these playoffs. The Buccaneers also have a defense that held opponents to 20.8 points per game.
Chiefs. The Cowboys and Bucs scored more in the regular season and the Packers and Bills often feel more automatic, but Kansas City has Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Andy Reid calling the shots. It’s just tough to bet against that in the playoffs. Had the Bucs stayed healthy, they’d be the pick here, but Kansas City is coming together at the right time. They have the most explosive playmakers, a solid running game, and a QB who always seems to be able to make that big play when it matters most. The Packers have those elements, too, but the Chiefs have the more proven play-callers.
Rams. Even though Los Angeles’ passing attack gets headlines, when they can run the ball, they find success. They’re 7-1 in 2021 when they rush for 100 yards or more, with a 5-4 record when that number is below 100. Is it arbitrary? Maybe. Even with Stafford’s propensity to throw an ill-timed a pick here or there, I still trust Sean McVay to keep his pulse on the offense and make it work.
Packers. Aaron Rodgers is playing at an MVP level; Davante Adams is arguably the best receiver in the league; Allen Lazard is becoming a quality No. 2 receiver and earning Rodgers’ trust; Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon comprise one of the best backfield tandems in the NFL. Best of all, the team got star left tackle David Bakhtiari back from a torn ACL that kept him out all season. That should improve their already solid blocking. So, yeah. There’s a lot to like with the Packers’ offense.
Packers. Rodgers to Davante Adams has never looked as dangerous a connection as it has in 2021, and even though Green Bay lacks a second go-to option at wide receiver, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Randall Cobb have each had games where they turn it up. Throw in the dangerous backfield combination of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, and this is an offense no defense should want to face.
Packers. The answer should be the Dallas Cowboys, given they hold the top spot in nearly every statistical offensive category as a team. But, given their inconsistency to go deep in the playoffs and the disappearance of certain impact players during the regular season (ie- Zeke), the Packers get my vote. Will they score the most points in the playoffs? Probably not. But an offense led by the presumptive MVP in Aaron Rodgers, who has connected with 8 different receivers this season and a rushing attack led by AJ Dillon and a (hopefully healthy) Aaron Jones with homefield advantage is hard to pass-up.
Cowboys. Defense doesn’t win championships the way it used to win them. Now it must make complementary big plays playing off a dynamic offense that puts pressure on the competition to keep up. The Buccaneers hit on that formula all the way toward stymying the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55 last year. Every defense in the playoffs has holes, including Dallas. But they also have take-over players in Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs. The conventional answer would be the Rams because of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, but that team has real concerns away from them, and on occasion, Von Miller.
Bills. Buffalo held opponents to 17.8 points and 272.8 yards per game this season. In the pass-happy NFL, that’s incredible. Kansas City and Tampa tuned up the Bills in the regular season, but they have settled in with four straight victories in which they allowed 21 points or less. Can defense still win championships?
Chiefs. Honestly, the answer here is probably the Patriots, but since they’ll likely lose in the first round to the Bills because their offense won’t step up, there’s not really a defense you can count on. All of the offenses in the playoffs are too good. The team that plays the best defense, whether that means shutting down an opponent or getting a bunch of opportune turnovers, will likely win the Super Bowl, and right now, the Chiefs and Cowboys are the teams that produce turnovers at the most consistent rate. We’ll give a slight edge to the Chiefs despite their struggles in Cincinnati in Week 17, but you could just as easily say Buffalo, Green Bay, or even Tampa Bay here. Yes, picking the Chiefs would have been insane earlier in the season, but they’re healthy and ready to make big plays.
49ers. San Francisco’s defense has really rounded nicely into form prior to the start of the playoffs. From Week 10 on, the Niners D gave up 30 points just once, and they played some pretty good offenses in that stretch. Coupled with a run game that’s been working, if they can make it past Dallas, they have as good a shot as any to make it deep.
Bills. My gut tells me none of them. But if I’m forced to choose, I’ll go with Buffalo. They allow the fewest points (17) and yards (272.8) per game, but that’s not why I like them more than the others. Buffalo gets pressure on 29.1 percent of dropbacks, good for the highest mark in the league, but only blitz 24 percent of the time, which ranks middle-of-the-pack. Being able to get pressure without blitzing is key against top-tier quarterbacks in the playoffs, so the Bills could go on a run because of that. I’d be more confident in them if Tre’Davious White was healthy, but the Bills are still probably the soundest defense of the bunch.
Patriots. New England had some issues late in the season, coughing up more than 27 each to the Colts, Bills and Dolphins in late losses, but let’s not ignore what it did the rest of the season. It held opponents to 10 points or fewer in six games and finished the season with the second-fewest points allowed per game and fourth-fewest yards allowed per game. Belichick is one of the greatest defensive coaches of all time, and his team delivered this season. Expect to see them do the same in the postseason.
Patriots. Listen, the Bills would be my answer if it weren’t for their middle of the road rush defense. But, considering they get the Pats in their wild card game, a team that outdueled them on the ground earlier this season and that frustrates opposing QBs and has held Josh Allen to below career average stats, the Pats get the nod. A top-5 defense in most statistical categories, New England’s defense has had to cover for a lot of their rookie QBs mistakes/inconsistencies.
Chiefs. It’s a bit chalky, but the Chiefs were Sporting News’ preseason pick to get to a third consecutive Super Bowl. There’s little evidence to believe that the Titans, Bills and/or Bengals can get the better of them a second time, especially at home when Mahomes is getting better support from his defense and running game. The burden of proof still lies on the rest of the AFC field.
Chiefs. Three-peats are hard to come by, but aside from the meltdown at Cincinnati the Chiefs have improved enough on defense to be playoff ready. Patrick Mahomes II has 15 TDs and no interceptions in his last six AFC playoff games, and that has to be intimidating for the rest of the AFC playoff field. None of the other six starting AFC QBs have been to a Super Bowl.
Chiefs. It’s boring to pick the Chiefs for a third year in a row, but they have the best QB, best coach, and a big-play defense. It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo broke through or Tennessee ground-and-pounds its way through the bracket, but the Chiefs have the experience.
Chiefs. If the defense is legit — and it certainly seems to be — then don’t be surprised if they take their red-hot finish to the regular season all the way through to the Super Bowl. We already know that Patrick Mahomes can score with the best of them, so KC’s Super Bowl hopes hinge on whether or not their defense comes with them.
Chiefs. I think the Chiefs are the most balanced team in the AFC. Their defense has come on in the second half of the season, with Chris Jones moving back to his tradition defensive tackle spot, so I think that they should do enough to slow down the teams they face in the AFC. Oh yeah, they also have Patrick Mahomes who can go off at any time, so that helps.
Chiefs. When it comes down to it, the Chiefs are again the best all-around team in the AFC. There are several teams that could give Kansas City a challenge — the Bills could go toe-to-toe with their own star quarterback, and the Bengals recently tore through KC’s defense — but Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid have been untouchable in the AFC playoffs the last two years. The Chiefs are winners of nine of their past 10 with wins against four playoff-bound teams during that stretch, and they seem to be clicking at the right time.
Titans. It’s a bit of an unconventional pick, despite the Titans claiming the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Currently, they have the third best odds to win the conference. But while some feel its the Chiefs’ crown until someone dethrones them, spotty offensive play earlier this season and a blueprint in how to shut down impact players makes the Titans more attractive. Tennessee has answered the call every time this season to eventually claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC and a first round bye. They accomplished this feat even after losing Derrick Henry midseason. Now, the running back is poised for a postseason return. Should his reintroduction into the lineup go smoothly and his impact return to an MVP-level, look out for the Titans.
Packers. The Buccaneers would have more appeal if there were fewer injuries and more certainty about Brady’s support system. The Cowboys look like a real threat and the 49ers can be concerning as a potential divisional opponent coming out of the same game. But the Packers also took care of the Rams and Cardinals during the season. After the Week 1 disaster against the Saints, the vibes have been strong with the Packers with Rodgers. They have lost only one game since in which Rodgers didn’t play the whole game. That’s why he should be the double MVP.
Packers. We mentioned Rodgers, and he’ll make plays with Davante Adams. The defense is better, and the return of some key players like David Bakhtiari and perhaps Jaire Alexander is a bonus. The key to the Super Bowl? Second-year running back A.J. Dillon, who has averaged 16 carries for 50 yards in the Packers’ last five home games. The 247-pound running back will provide the all-weather compliment to Rodgers along with Aaron Jones, and the third time will be the charm in the NFC championship game.
Packers. It always feels stupid to pick against Tom Brady, but this year, it feels just as stupid to pick against Aaron Rodgers. With the road to the Super Bowl going through Lambeau – a packed, frigid Lambeau this time around – Green Bay just feels destined to come out of a strong NFC. The Rams have the talent and the Bucs – or what’s left of them – have the G.O.A.T., but it’s time for Patrick Mahomes to face off against another all-time great.
Packers. It certainly feels like destiny: After all the offseason (and in-season) drama, the Packers are going to make it to Super Bowl 56. The Rodgers-Davante Adams connection is arguably the best in the playoffs, while the Packers can run the ball and work everything else off of that. The last question will be the decisions that Matt LaFleur makes — and it’s hard to see him reenacting past sins for a third straight playoff push.
Packers. I don’t think that the NFC is as cut-and-dry as people think it is, but it does appear that each team in the Packers’ path has a fatal flaw. The Bucs are missing receivers, Matthew Stafford is banged-up for the Rams and both the Cardinals and 49ers lack the quality cornerbacks needed to match up with Rodgers’ weapons. Maybe the 49ers can rattle Rodgers enough to beat them at Lambeau and maybe the Cowboys can go toe-to-toe with them, but I think it’s more likely that the Packers finally put it all together and return to the Super Bowl.
Packers. Green Bay seems to have everything it needs to finally reach the Super Bowl again. Its defense is Pro Football Focus’ third-best, and Rodgers is once again looking like the NFL MVP. He’ll have to get past Tom Brady, who he’s beaten only once in his career, but this year, the Packers have the supporting cast around him to get it done.
Packers. The Aaron Rodgers revenge tour appears to be an unstoppable force. After coming up just short last season, the Packers have a first round bye, home field advantage and a top-tier offense and a defense that can keep their team in it makes them an attractive candidate. The Bucs have Tom Brady, but the Bucs depth chart is sketchy. The Packers are the most reliable team top to bottom to come out of the NFC.
Super Bowl predictions 2021
Packers over Chiefs. The matchup that we thought we would materialize last year does happen here between Rodgers and Mahomes this year. We also didn’t get this game during the regular season because of Jordan Love starting for Rodgers in Kansas City. He may have put his game-show hosting gig and health in jeopardy, but the wheel of fortune is spinning toward Green Bay to lift the Lombardi for the first time in 11 seasons, fittingly going through either Brady or McCarthy.
Packers over Chiefs. Mahomes missed the 2019 matchup against Green Bay. Rodgers missed the regular-season game this year. Finally, get Rodgers vs. Mahomes in a Super Bowl fit for multiple State Farm commercials. Both quarterbacks are looking for that second Super Bowl, and this is the most-entertaining matchup on the board. Both teams have improved on defense, but Rodgers and Mahomes would turn this into a thrilling shootout. The Packers are 6-2 in one-score games this season, and the Chiefs are 5-2. In the end, Rodgers leads the game-winning drive, one that is sealed, of all things, by a game-winning field goal by Mason Crosby.
Chiefs over Packers. There are plenty of worthy contenders, but the Chiefs just have too many playmakers and too many good coaches.
Chiefs over Packers. The world finally gets the Patrick Mahomes-Aaron Rodgers showdown in the biggest game of the season. The Chiefs went through the ringer this year, with questions about the defense, Mahomes and everything in-between. The Chiefs will take home the win.
Chiefs over Packers. The Chiefs have worked to fix the biggest issue that plagued them during their Super Bowl run last year, the offensive line, and should be well-equipped to deal with any pressure that the Packers put upon them. Their offense may not be the explosive unit we were once used to seeing, but they will be able to match and exceed Rodgers’ production. Meanwhile, the Packers will come close this year but ultimately won’t be able to complete Rodgers’ “Last Dance” in Green Bay. They’ll enter the offseason with questions about whether they’ll finally get over the hump next season… and whether Rodgers will be back in a Green Bay uniform once again.
Packers over Chiefs. The Chiefs again have the unfortunate luck to run into a future Hall of Fame quarterback out to prove himself in the Super Bowl. The last time they faced off, the Chiefs barely won 13-7, but that game was without Rodgers. In the Super Bowl, Rodgers wins a shootout against Mahomes to collect his second ring, and immediately usher in questions about what is next.
Packers over Chiefs. For the sake of parody, in a year that had so much of it, the drama and polarization centered around Aaron Rodgers ending in a Super Bowl victory feels incredibly poetic. A Packers win would then carry the drama into the offseason with a focus on where Rodgers will quarterback next season. Would a Lombardi Trophy heal all wounds?