After two straight Super Bowl wins by NFC teams, the AFC is primed to strike back in 2022. The West is stacked with dangerous gunslingers on every team, the North boasts the defending conference champ, the South could be due for some better luck, and the East features our preseason favorite to take home the Lombardi Trophy. Read on to see how your favorite AFC team fared in our Elo forecast’s first batch of 50,000 season simulations:
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The reigning AFC East champion Buffalo Bills went 11-6 in 2021 — precisely what our model predicted going into the season. We’re forecasting another 11-win season for Buffalo in 2022, with almost exactly the same odds of making the playoffs and winning the East. In fact, Elo projects the entire division to run back their 2021 records, with only minor tweaks to each team’s playoff chances.
A total repeat of 2021 is probably not what Buffalo is hoping for, though. The Bills ended last season just 13 seconds from hosting the AFC championship game, losing a wild quarterback duel in overtime to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in what was arguably one of the greatest playoff games of all time. This time around, anything less than a Super Bowl trip will be viewed as a disappointment.
Luckily, Allen’s play throughout the regular season and into the playoffs largely put to rest any questions about his status as an elite QB. Buffalo’s offense finished seventh in expected points added, and against the New England Patriots in the wild card round, Allen and the Bills scored a touchdown every single time they touched the football — an NFL first. The Bills’ defense was also very impressive, ranking first in EPA, yards allowed and points allowed. That all-around excellence made the Bills league leaders in point differential.
One potential source for worry in Buffalo is that defense in the NFL is unreliable year-over-year, and the Bills will begin the season without their best starting cornerback Tre’Davious White (though they did add edge rusher Von Miller). But Bufflalo doesn’t have to fully recapture its defensive magic from 2021 if Allen and the offense continue where they left off in the playoffs. The Bills deserve to be the preseason favorite to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
After opening last season with a 1-point win over New England, the Miami Dolphins stumbled their way to seven straight losses, bookended by two blowout defeats to Buffalo. But then Miami did something no other team in NFL history had done after losing seven straight: They strung together seven straight wins, finishing 9-8 and nearly making the playoffs.
Our model thinks another nine-win season is the Fins’ most likely outcome in 2022. Last year, Miami made life as easy as possible on former first-round quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, calling play action at the highest rate in the league — a trend that seems likely to continue under new Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who used the tactic frequently while coordinating the 49ers’ offense in 2021. But what may change is the team’s unwillingness to flood the field with receivers. Last year’s Dolphins ranked dead last in the NFL in share of plays with all five eligible receivers running routes; the Niners under McDaniel were ninth.
Potentially standing in the way of a Miami ascent are the New England Patriots, the AFC East’s longtime bullies. After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008 in 2020, head coach Bill Belichick and the front office spent a record $163 million in guaranteed money heading into 2021. The deluge of cash seemed to help: The Patriots finished 10-7 and made it back to the playoffs.
This season, New England has to compensate for the loss of longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who left to coach the Las Vegas Raiders. The Pats will begin the season with no clear replacement for McDaniels as play-caller, with Belichick choosing instead to assemble a Frankenstein approximation out of former head coaches Joe Judge and Matt Patricia. McDaniels helped guide rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the Pats offense to the NFL’s 12th-best unit by total EPA in 2021. For Jones to continue progressing in his sophomore year, the coaching staff will probably need to find its footing quickly. Absent that, the nine wins projected by the model seem optimistic.
Since the New York Jets are likely without the services of former first-round quarterback Zach Wilson to start the season, they may instead have to rely on 37-year-old Joe Flacco to lead an offense that ranked 27th in EPA last year into a Week 1 game against his former team, the Baltimore Ravens. That’s bad enough, but the larger problem is that head coach Robert Saleh’s defense ranked last in EPA a season ago. That will have to change for the Jets to be competitive this season. We projected a six-win season for the Jets last year, and they ended up winning four. Perhaps this is the season they begin the climb back to relevance in the AFC East.
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There’s very little separating the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens in our Elo rankings, despite the Bengals making it to the Super Bowl and the Ravens finishing last in the North for the first time since 2007. Each team has a 57 percent probability to make the playoffs, and both have about a 1-in-24 shot to win the Super Bowl. The parity projected by the model can be partially explained by a strong and well-balanced AFC North in 2021, and partially by a string of injuries that dismantled the Ravens last season. Baltimore finished with 20 players on injured reserve, not including QB Lamar Jackson (who missed the final four games of the season but was never placed on IR).
Below Cincinnati and Baltimore, the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their life after Ben Roethlisberger with veteran Mitchell Trubisky starting at quarterback over 2022 first-round pick Kenny Pickett. But although head coach Mike Tomlin kept the decision close to his vest and didn’t announce his QB1 until mere days before the season, it likely wouldn’t have mattered either way. There’s an odd symmetry to the fact that, in the first season of Pittsburgh’s post-Roethlisberger era, the model projects that the Steelers will finish with a record below .500 for the first time since 2003, the year before the six-time Pro Bowler was drafted.
Finally, the Cleveland Browns’ postseason hopes took a large hit when quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for 11 games after accusations of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women. Elo rates Cleveland as the worst team in the North without Watson. Despite holding slightly higher Super Bowl odds than Pittsburgh, the Browns are probably already playing for next season.
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Since the abrupt retirement of Andrew Luck in 2019, the Indianapolis Colts under general manager Chris Ballard have been nothing if not consistent. Most years, Indy seems to field a team that is excellent on paper at almost every position except quarterback. Last year, the Colts trotted out six All-Pros at various non-QB positions, only to get eliminated from playoff contention after losing to the lowly 3-14 Jaguars in the final week of the regular season.
After trading Carson Wentz to the Washington Commanders in May, this year’s Colts will feature 37-year-old Matt Ryan behind center. Indy appears to be hoping that the former All-Pro can recapture some of the magic that then-39-year-old Philip Rivers brought to the team in 2020, his only year as a Colt. They finished 11-5 that season, losing in the wild-card round — after which Rivers promptly retired. If Ryan can avoid mistakes and play the hero every once in a while on third down, the Colts should live up to expectations as a team solidly in the second tier of AFC playoff contenders.
It’s easy to forget that the Tennessee Titans were the No. 1 seed in last year’s AFC playoffs. But after a regular season in which their all-world running back Derrick Henry was injured and quarterback Ryan Tannehill tossed more interceptions than he had in the previous two years combined, a playoffs that saw their second straight one-and-out and a draft-day trade that sent their star wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Eagles, the model is understandably bearish on Tennessee in 2022. We project a 9-8 finish for the Titans, and while NFL betting markets have their win total slightly higher (at 9.5), this team can’t exceed its expected win-loss record forever.
The Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans each won the Super Bowl in less than 1 percent of our 50,000 simulated seasons. In terms of dysfunction last season, it would be hard to pick between the two — one employed Urban Meyer for part of the season as head ball coach, the other paid Watson not to play all season — but most would agree that Jacksonville has a higher on-field ceiling heading into the year. Owing to the presence of former No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence and a fresh start at head coach after giving Meyer the boot in favor of Doug Pederson, Elo gives the Jags an edge over the Davis Mills-led Texans.
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The AFC West may be the most stacked division in all of football. Each team has a strong QB and a solid supporting cast or coach, and it’s plausible that any of the four teams wins the division.
Still, our model likes the Kansas City Chiefs to win the AFC West for the seventh straight time and gives Kansas City 1-in-4 odds to make its fifth consecutive AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs have the best head coach in the division in Andy Reid, who last year became the first coach in NFL history to win 100 games with two different teams. And while quarterback Patrick Mahomes had a down year by his standards, and playmaking wide receiver Tyreek Hill was traded to Miami, Mahomes’s greatness remains undeniable. As long as Reid and Mahomes continue to be a dynamic pair, it makes sense that no team besides Buffalo has a higher chance to win the Super Bowl than Kansas City.
The Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos are both extremely good teams, also belonging in the AFC’s second tier. L.A. has one of the league’s most exciting young coach/quarterback pairs in Brandon Staley and Justin Herbert. Staley has gained a reputation as an aggressive play-caller unafraid to routinely go for it on fourth down — even in high-leverage moments of important games. And for his part, Herbert has not-so-quietly had a terrific start to his pro career. Of course, it hasn’t yet translated to wins and playoff appearances: L.A. finished 2021 at 9-8, missing the playoffs for the third straight season. This should be the year the Bolts finally break through.
Meanwhile, the model may be underestimating the benefits of adding of Russell Wilson (along with new coach Nathaniel Hackett) to an already stacked Broncos lineup. Wilson wasn’t elite last season in Seattle, finishing 10th in Total QBR, but the Broncos’ offense (23rd in scoring) lagged so far behind its defense (third in points allowed) that any upgrade at QB could pay huge dividends. The betting markets have the Broncos’ win total at 10.5, which seems like a more reasonable projection than our nine-win call.
And then there are the Raiders, whose playoff win drought stands at 19 years. After head coach Jon Gruden resigned five games into the 2021 season over a series of racist, homophobic and misogynstic emails, interim coach Rich Bisaccia overcame the chaos and adversity to lead Las Vegas to a playoff berth. (His reward? Being replaced by McDaniels.) With the model giving Vegas just a 13 percent chance of winning the West and 34 percent chance of making the playoffs, the Raiders and their 19th-ranked 2021 offense (by EPA) figure to be on the outside looking in come January. But then again, Las Vegas kept surprising us all season — maybe they have more of that in store for 2022.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.