Teams listed by draft order, minus trades.
32. Chicago Bears
“The 'experts' said the Bears would only win three games all year,” the tweet began. “They've won two of their first three. Do these same 'experts' feel the Bears will go 1-14 the rest of the way?” There was hope in the air the day Greg Gabriel shared that now-deleted masterpiece. Not only that, the best development was yet to come. Justin Fields was about to take the league by storm with quarterback rushing explosiveness rarely seen since the days of Michael Vick. But Gabriel's unnamed “experts” did prove to be right. The Bears indeed went 1-14 the rest of the way. They earned the No. 1 overall pick for the first time since 1947. And while Fields did something no Bears quarterback draft pick has done in decades — actually look good — he also left plenty of questions unanswered. Namely, can he pass at an NFL level? Playing with a laughably bad supporting cast, Fields completed more than 15 throws three times all year. His 3.5 interception percentage was second only to Dak Prescott. He wasn't asked to do much through the air and responded in kind. Fields' progress as a passer, along with defensive-minded head coach Matt Eberflus' rebuild of a unit that finally completed its collapse from its Vic Fangio peak, will define this franchise moving forward.
31. Houston Texans
The worst team in football began the year with a tie and ended with an unwanted victory. That's how bad the Texans were. The only time they actually wanted to lose — in Week 18 to secure the No. 1 overall pick — they inexplicably had their best offensive moment. To that point, no team had converted more than one 4th-and-10 in the same game all year. The Texans did so on the same game-”winning” drive against the Colts. Ask the 2020 Jets about the implications of such pyrrhic victories. The 2022 Jags made the Divisional Round two years after Gang Green gifted them the No. 1 selection. The Jets? They were rotating Mike White and Joe Flacco after benching Zach Wilson for the second time. Although an obviously-fired Lovie Smith — the Texans' second one-and-done coach in as many seasons — won't be around to help clean up the mess, neither will preacher-turned-shadow GM Jack Easterby, who finally lost the confidence of clueless owner Cal McNair in October. Remaining and hanging on by a thread is GM Nick Caserio, whose first two years on the job largely consisted of signing special teamers. Where is Bill O'Brien when you need him?
30. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals started 2021 7-0. They're 8-20 since. They went 1-8 at home in 2022, scoring 109 fewer points than 2021 and allowing 83 more. They were 0-9 against playoff teams. That is how coach Kliff Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim each pulled off the unenviable feat of getting fired 10 months into five-year extensions. Those agreements, of course, curdled the second they were signed. 2022 was merely the culmination of Kingsbury and Keim's shoddy world-building. An “air raid” offense that remained pathetically horizontal for Kliff. A 53-man roster that routinely failed to add blue chip talent in either the draft or free agency for Keim. At the center of the Kliff/Keim failure axis is Kyler Murray, a supposed franchise player who has struggled to stay healthy, regressed mightily in 2022 and spent more time arguing with Kingsbury than anything else. It's a miracle this team was ever in position to get annihilated by the Rams in the 2021-22 Wild Card Round. Picking No. 3 this spring, they could be No. 1 in 2024 unless Murray makes a seamless recovery from his torn ACL.
29. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts began 2022 with a three-game stretch that included: 1. A tie with the Texans. 2. A shutout loss to the Jaguars. 3. A win over the Chiefs. That was the normal part of their year. What followed was not only the crumbling of the Colts' natural quarterback order — Matt Ryan was the first Frank Reich hired gun not to produce a winning campaign — but the fraying of the carefully-calibrated ecosystem that had kept impulsive owner Jim Irsay in check for most of the 21st century. Finally fed up with his parade of post-Peyton Manning/Andrew Luck veteran mercenaries, Irsay, in order: 1. Ordered the benching of Ryan. 2. Orchestrated the firing of OC Marcus Brady. 3. Fired Reich. 4. Hired … former All-Pro Colts guard Jeff Saturday? Who had been out of the league for 10 years and never coached beyond high school? After a memeable career-opening win over the Raiders — “Raiders look horrible” — Saturday had to settle for almost beating the Eagles and then … being deeply, deeply terrible, going 1-7 with a -87 point differential. If civilization is but a thin veneer, the same is true of an owner who seemed to have his worst impulses under control right up until the second he didn't. The genie is out of the bottle. Best of luck to whoever is tasked with putting it back in.
28. Denver Broncos
Nathaniel Hackett seems like a nice guy — now there's your first problem. Peter Carroll tried to tell us that style doesn't work with Russell Wilson. That if you cut the man loose, the only thing that will end up cooked is you. Those fears seemed a little far-fetched until Week 5. Although the Broncos were a middling 2-2, they had narrowly lost to Wilson's former team and beaten San Francisco. Wilson had not played well, generating just four passing scores in four games, but the situation still felt salvageable. Then the Broncos and Colts played the Thursday night stink bomb heard 'round the world. In one of the most viral contests of the entire year, Denver and Indy combined for 21 points in 65 wretched minutes of football. Wilson tossed two picks, generated zero scores, and completed 53.9 percent of his passes amidst the game's seven total field goals. Broncos country had finally realized where it was riding: The ditch. They would win just one more game until a Week 18 baffler over the Chargers, securing the No. 5 overall pick only to send it to Seattle for the services Wilson decidedly did not render. Always know what the chef is actually cooking before you invite him into the kitchen.
27. Los Angeles Rams
A 21-point home loss in the opener isn't exactly standard-operating procedure for a defending Super Bowl champion returning its coach, quarterback and best overall player, but it did come against the Bills. The Rams were also still sorting through offensive line combinations following Andrew Whitworth's retirement. Although the next two weeks brought wins over the Falcons and Cardinals, the concern level actually increased. Those were bad teams the Rams beat by one score. 3-3 coming out of the bye, Week 8 against San Francisco would reveal which way the Rams were going. Down, it turns out. That 31-14 setback against the Niners was the beginning of a six-game losing streak and injury avalanche that would make the Chargers blush. None of Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp or Aaron Donald would take the field after Dec. 1, with only Donald even bothering to play a snap after Thanksgiving. As much as injuries were to blame, the chickens also came home to roost on Sean McVay and Les Snead's “F them picks” philosophy. Every team has injury issues. Only the Rams had no viable depth to fill in after years of selling the farm. Now saddled with an aging core and distracted head coach, the Rams' path back is anything but certain.
26. Las Vegas Raiders
One could watch every game of the 2022 NFL season and argue each of the four worst losses came from the Raiders. There was the Week 8 contest where they were shut out 24-0 by the Andy Dalton-led Saints and did not cross the 50-yard line until there was 2:25 remaining. There was the Week 10 home date where they lost 25-20 to the Colts, a team breaking in an interim coach who was hired six days prior and had never worked above high school after retiring from the NFL in 2012. For Week 14 against the Rams, they led for 59 minutes and 50 seconds before letting Baker Mayfield — who was signed two days before the game — conduct a pair of touchdown drives in the final 1:45. They were bookended around a one-play Raiders “drive” ended by a Derek Carr interception. Finally there was Week 16 on Christmas Eve night in Pittsburgh, where the Raiders once again led for 59:14 before turning Kenny Pickett into John Elway on the game's final series. Four unforgivable losses for a 6-11 team in a conference where 9-8 made the playoffs. That is to say nothing of the Silver and Black's five other one-score defeats. Josh McDaniels failed in all the biggest moments. He responded by scapegoating Carr. If his non-Patriots coaching history is any indication, McDaniels will need a lot more excuses at the ready in 2023.
25. Atlanta Falcons
Although the Falcons remained stuck in 7-10 nowheresville, they did so with more aplomb than 2021. That squad had a -146 point differential and was genuinely one of the worst in the league. This one actually scored 52 more points than the division-winning Bucs, and did so without a real quarterback. Run-minded head coach Arthur Smith oversaw the third most rushing production in the league, averaging 4.9 yards on the 559 carries he dialed up. The Falcons were one of just five offenses to generate positive EPA on the ground. That, of course, came at the expense of the passing attack, where Ferraris Kyle Pitts and Drake London were condemned to gather dust in the garage. Pitts' season was ended early by a knee injury. London finally came on late when Desmond Ridder replaced Marcus Mariota under center. Not that Ridder looked like the future. Robotic and lacking explosion, the 23-year-old rookie already appeared at his ceiling. The Falcons are making progress. It just might not be fast enough to turn the future into the present.
24. Carolina Panthers
Plan Z Baker Mayfield didn't work at quarterback, so owner David Tepper's Plan A was out as head coach. Matt Rhule made it five games before he was fired 2.5 seasons into his seven-year, $62 million contract. It turned out being a former short-order cook — one of Tepper's stated reasons for hiring him — and saying the word “analytics” at opportune times didn't actually make Rhule a good NFL head coach. He's a salesman, one who belongs in college. Interim man Steve Wilks is anything but. A meat-and-potatoes grinder, Wilks took Rhule's undead zombie roster — one now quarterbacked by P.J. Walker and Sam Darnold — and guided it to a surprising 6-6 finish. Riding a lethal rushing attack despite D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard being the lead backs, Wilks' squad overachieved to the degree that it got a de facto NFC South championship game with the Bucs in Week 17. The Panthers lost, but created hope that their latest rebuild may not be their longest.
23. New Orleans Saints
Andy Dalton being the solution to your problem can only mean one thing: You've got bigger problems. Jameis Winston broke his back in Week 3 and was never heard from again. Dalton got the car keys and drove 55 in a 70, leading the Saints to a 6-8 record during his 14 appearances. While Dalton understandably couldn't paper over the Saints' issues on offense — overall lack of weapons, mediocre line, stagnant running game — head coach Dennis Allen did what he could on his side of the ball. The Saints finished 10th in defensive EPA and allowed the fewest points in the wretched NFC South. They remained “in the hunt” until the very end. The problem is, it was for a first-round loss as the NFC's seventh seed. The Saints beat one playoff team all year, the Seahawks, unless you count their Week 17 victory over the Gardner Minshew-led Eagles. This is a franchise that got used to thinking bigger under Sean Payton. With conservative Allen calling the Sunday shots for a front office that lacks the draft ammunition to land a franchise quarterback, things could remain small in New Orleans for some time.
22. Tennessee Titans
0-2 before they were 7-3, the Titans ended up 7-10. The reason was simple: A team that already couldn't score points lost its quarterback. Ryan Tannehill's ankle limited him to six appearances after Week 7. The Titans never scored more than 17 points in the five games Tannehill missed, and were one of only five squads to finish with fewer than 300 tallies on the year. That undermined Mike Vrabel's continued good work on defense, a side of the ball where he apparently felt undermined by his personnel. Also still smarting from the loss of A.J. Brown, Vrabel successfully forced GM Jon Robinson out in December. Long considered the brains of an operation that has punched above its weight as it reached the AFC Championship Game and earned a No. 1 seed over the past four seasons, Vrabel will likely now have far greater input on the roster. It's a good plan in theory, but Vrabel wouldn't be the first coach to find out he should have stayed out of the personnel business.
21. Cleveland Browns
In a holding pattern of their own making, the Browns waited out Deshaun Watson's 11-game suspension only to find themselves a worse team upon his return. After averaging 24 points during Jacoby Brissett's 11 starts, that number plunged to 16 for Watson's six. Yes, he was knocking off the rust after a two-year absence while joining a season on the fly, but it was shocking to see how little thought had been put into marrying Watson's playing style to coach Kevin Stefanski's run-first system. That will be a project for the offseason. In-season, the Browns wasted a monumental Myles Garrett campaign and another year of Nick Chubb's prime. The offensive line continued road paving, offering hope for a quick 2023 turnaround. With those principals returning and Watson certain to improve, it's easy to envision better days ahead. With the Browns prone to desperation and Watson/Stefanski potentially not being a match, it's equally easy to envision a continuation of Cleveland's infinite sadness.
20. New York Jets
Don't do a rug pull, don't do a rug pull, don't do a rug pull … andddddddd the rug is pulled. The Jets were sitting at 7-4 and within striking distance of their first postseason appearance since 2010. They didn't win another game, going 0-6 with four one-score losses. Agonizing, if hardly unsurprising. With Zach Wilson both battling the “yips” and losing the locker room's confidence, the Jets were forced to turn to meme quarterback Mike White. White is here to have one good start and instantly get injured, and he's all out of good starts. Unlike so many of the non-playoff teams on this list, the Jets really were just one player away. Their defense has arrived and their skill corps is brimming with young talent. They just couldn't answer the biggest question, which in turn highlights their going-forward questions. Can a shaky offensive line be upgraded? Will Breece Hall be the same player he was before his ACL tear? Will Elijah Moore gel with new OC Nathaniel Hackett (lol)? All important issues, though none of it will matter unless Wilson is upgraded.
19. New England Patriots
It's not even that the Patriots made a defensive-minded coach offensive coordinator, unforgivable as that was. It's that they made an actively bad defensive-minded coach offensive coordinator. Matt Patricia is the same “defensive mind” who couldn't get a Nick Foles-led offense off the field in the Super Bowl. The same coach who had the worst defense in the league in Detroit. How why cómo por qué was this the decision Bill Belichick made? The brutally predictable result was Mac Jones regressing on his modest rookie campaign and the Pats never developing an offensive identity. The less predictable outcome was Jones growing frustrated to the point that he spent most of his late-season appearances screaming at the coaching staff and going so far as to seek outside help to spark the offense. Those kinds of visible affronts would have been unthinkable under Belichick even 2-3 years ago. Beyond being literal cries for help from his most important player, they symbolize how fast life can come at even the best coach in the league when he loses the greatest player in NFL history. Thankfully for Belichick, he can still coordinate a defense. He can also admit when he's wrong. Patricia is out, Bill O'Brien is in. Only time will tell if it is too little, too late as the GOAT years recede ever-further into the rear-view mirror.
18. Green Bay Packers
How do you stop disappointing in the playoffs? By not making them in the first place. Coming off back-to-back No. 1 seeds that failed to produce a Super Bowl berth, the Packers could not overcome the loss of Davante Adams. With rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs learning on the fly as they gutted through injury, the Pack scored 80 fewer points than 2021, and 139 fewer than 2020. After starting 3-1, they fell to 3-6 before crawling back to 8-8. Their reward was a win-and-in Week 18 home date with the Lions. Instead of making lemonade out of their 2022 lemons, they once again found their Lambeau home-field advantage to be anything but as the Lions won 20-16. All the while, twice-defending MVP Aaron Rodgers appeared oh-so-tired. Rather than his usual smoldering rage, he exuded visible relief when the Lions sent the Packers packing. A palpable sense of “run its course” colored the team's January remarks, but it remains unclear if Rodgers plans to release this franchise from his grip.
17. Washington Commanders
There was no need to play the games or run a simulation. Anyone who had ever watched a second of NFL football could have told you the plan wouldn't work. And yet, they did it anyways. The Washington Commanders traded for Carson Wentz and made him their quarterback. Five games later, a broken finger gave them their out. World-renowned meme QB and dawg-levels-haver Taylor Heinicke sparked a 6-1-1 streak heading into the “Commies'” bye, but it wasn't enough to counteract the inevitable collapse. Washington finished the season 1-3 with Heinicke and Wentz both losing starts. Only stuntman No. 3 Sam Howell could notch a victory, and it came in Week 18 against a conflicted Cowboys squad that couldn't decide if it was resting its starters. The Commanders are now back at square one with no real idea of what square two even looks like. That would be a bad thing anywhere else. In Washington, it represents deliverance. Owner Daniel Snyder is selling the team, and maybe, just maybe, non-laughingstock days are ahead.
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers once again finished above .500, but it required One Weird Trick befitting of the internet's most sodden clickbait. Mired in an otherwise uninspiring rookie campaign, Kenny Pickett became Dan Marino for the two-minute drill in Weeks 16 and 17, sparking victories over the Raiders and Ravens and guiding the Steelers to a 9-8 finish. Pittsburgh went 7-2 after its bye even with Pickett providing only five passing scores in eight starts during that timespan. The defense and a revived run game were to thank, though Pickett certainly displayed “moxie” and other ineffable traits that vanish as quickly as they appear if you aren't actually a good thrower of the football. Just ask Taylor Heinicke. Mike Tomlin is always going to give the Steelers a 7-9 win floor. It's very much up for debate if Pickett can supply a ceiling.
15. Detroit Lions
The Lions went 8-2 to end the season and missed the playoffs. How can that happen? When you go 1-6 to start the year. Such is the life of a young team, but this is no ordinary young team. Everywhere you look, there's a building block. Penei Sewell on the offensive line. Aidan Hutchinson on the defensive. Kerby Joseph in the secondary. Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jameson Williams in the skill corps. OC Ben Johnson on the coaching staff. Even veteran quarterback Jared Goff overachieved, providing hope he can be a bridge to the postseason and not just his inevitable rookie contract replacement. At the center of it all is coach Dan Campbell, who threads the needle of old school toughness and new school awareness. After decades in the doldrums, the future is finally now in Detroit.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Maybe Tom Brady's coach matters after all. With Bruce Arians retired for approximately the seventh time, this aging roster retreated into a conservative shell, becoming far more predictable on offense as it plunged from first in EPA per play in 2021 to 20th. Brady would probably blame his offensive line, but Pro Football Focus rated his pass blocking as fifth best in the league. Allergic to getting hit, Brady cut his already-blistering average time to throw from 2.35 to an NFL-leading 2.30. Venturing down the field less often and less effectively, he generated just 795 yards on attempts of 20-plus yards after that number was 1,048 in 2021. It didn't help that Mike Evans seemed to forget how to play wideout for long stretches of the season. Brady's quarterback rating was 125.6 when targeting Evans in 2021. It fell to 85.2 for 2022. Equally unhelpful was a “running game” that provided a league-low 79 first downs on the ground. All along the way was a pervasive sense of unhappiness from both Brady and coach Todd Bowles. The identity was gone. Brady was next.
13. Seattle Seahawks
Now we know what Pete Carroll was talking about. In fairness to Pete, he never just came out and said it. He remained diplomatic. But he knew he was right, that Russell Wilson provided as many problems as solutions on offense, and that the Seahawks would not suddenly crumble were he to go away. Which, let's not overstate the scale of the Seahawks' triumph. Even as Wilson faceplanted in Denver — beginning with a Week 1 loss in Seattle — the Seahawks were hardly some juggernaut. They were better, scoring 407 points, a 12-point improvement on Wilson's final season and good for ninth in the league. The biggest problems remained on Carroll's defensive side of the ball, where they allowed over 400 points for the first time since 2010. There are 17 games now, yes, but just seven teams permitted more tallies. Carroll has disproved the notion he's some dinosaur, but Wilson's subtraction didn't magically provide the needed additions on defense. Hopefully that begins to change when the Seahawks cash in the Broncos' No. 5 overall pick this spring.
12. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins fired their previous coach after a 9-8 campaign and got a lawsuit out of it. No pressure, new guy. Mike McDaniel's winding road ended up at the same 9-8 destination as Brian Flores, though the vagaries of fate put McDaniel's squad in the playoffs. That is where the pressure finally got to him. Literally. An injury-ruined offensive line that couldn't stop getting its quarterbacks injured did what it could with second- and third-stringers against the Bills but couldn't prevent No. 3 QB Skylar Thompson from taking four sacks. Season over. Now the literal healing can begin. When everyone is back to full health, there is a lot to play around with for McDaniel, who knew how to manage and manipulate Tua Tagovailoa and proved quite adept at scheming Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle into space. He lived up to his billing as a Shanny-style offensive genius, something that has been in agonizingly short supply in Miami this century. Now he just needs to get the defense fixed, a mission he began by firing what remained of Flores' foot soldiers this winter. There is the talent and brainpower here for more than just a Wild Card appearance, but the variables — Tua's health, a shortage of defensive difference-makers — make it anything but a sure thing 2023 will be a franchise step forward.
11. Los Angeles Chargers
There are football seasons, then there are Chargers seasons. Guaranteed injury and soul-deadening losses are the touchstones of the latter. Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, LT Rashawn Slater and high-dollar free agent addition J.C. Jackson all missed considerable time in 2022 while Justin Herbert spent weeks playing through a painful rib ailment. Despite those issues, the gut-punch losses were in relatively short supply … until the playoffs. That's when the Bolts uncorked the third biggest choke job in postseason history, squandering a 27-0 lead in Jacksonville before losing on a last-second field goal. Only the Chargers, though this mind-numbing setback at least came in Week 19 instead of Week 18. The Bolts have officially made the playoffs with their gifted young franchise player Herbert. Now they just have to figure out how to keep his machine well-oiled. Since-fired OC Joe Lombardi's conservative passing attack wasn't it, though alternatives were few and far between with the Chargers' offensive line issues and aging, undermanned skill corps. They are more than 1-2 tweaks away from this being a push-button situation. The key for 2023 will be making the situation better instead of letting it further deteriorate.
10. Baltimore Ravens
Performing something akin to “anti-offense,” the Ravens lost their only wide receiver when Rashod Bateman went down for the season in Week 8 and were largely operating without an NFL-level lead back until J.K. Dobbins returned from his second knee operation in Week 14. Once again, Lamar Jackson missed the entire stretch run, removing all hope this squad had of scoring points. And yet, they made the playoffs for the fourth time in five Jackson years. Like the Patriots and Steelers, this is a team whose head coach provides an 8-9 win baseline no matter how hard he makes things on himself. For John Harbaugh in 2022, no hardship was more self-inflicted than his continued allegiance to OC Greg Roman. Without Jackson, Roman's system had no hope of moving the ball. Quarterbacks are always uniquely important, but they can't be your Plan A, B, C, D and E. As the Ravens wait for Jackson to return, Roman has been sent packing. We might not always know how they're doing it, but expect another minimum of 8-9 victories in 2023, with the possibility for a whole lot more.
9. Minnesota Vikings
When the wise man bowed his head and solemnly said “there is actually zero difference between good and bad things,” we would like to think he was talking about the 2022 Minnesota Vikings. The 2022 Minnesota Vikings who went 13-4. The 2022 Minnesota Vikings who posted a negative point differential. The 2022 Minnesota Vikings who reached 13 victories for just the third time in franchise history only to get passed out of the postseason by Daniel Jones. I would like to say there was a lot going on here, but it was really rather simple. The Vikings had remarkable luck in one-score games against average opponents and got blown out almost every time they played someone even remotely good, including playoff-missing division mates Detroit and Green Bay after Dec. 1. Treating defense as purely optional, the Vikings' offense wasn't close to good enough to fuel a deep postseason run. That leaves the team in an awkward spot as it attempts to reload with the No. 23 overall draft pick. They are just as close to 4-13 as another 13-4 campaign. Firing overmatched DC Ed Donatell was a good start, but this is a franchise several moves away from truly competing.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
What difference does coaching make? In their first year AU — after Urban — the Jags scored 151 more points and surrendered 157 fewer. They finished higher than third place for just the third time since 2007. They won the division for the fourth time in the history of Jaguars football. They got better as they went, shaking off a 3-7 start to surmount the Titans. They adjusted, overcoming a 27-0 Wild Card deficit to win their third playoff game since the George W. Bush administration. They simply got better in every fashion, re-establishing expectations for a fanbase that had all but lost them in the wake of Urban Meyer's ruinous 2021. Meyer nearly destroyed franchise player Trevor Lawrence before he got started, but it was Lawrence's bounce-back that was most impressive of all. While Lawrence didn't lack for young quarterback mistakes, it's not a stretch to say he's already the most valuable player in the AFC South. The reset is over, and the future of Jaguars football is only beginning.
7. New York Giants
It was the same Daniel Jones you've always known, only this time with fewer receivers. And yet he posted career highs nearly across the board, cutting his infamously-abundant turnover total to almost zero in the process. Jones lost only three fumbles and led the league with his 1.1 interception percentage. How did The Dimesman accomplish this with a receiver trio that was down to Richie James, Isaiah Hodgins and Darius Slayton by the end of the season? His name is Brian Daboll. The Giants' first-year head coach revived the G-Men's rushing attack and made the offense infinitely more efficient. Dead last in EPA per play in 2021, Daboll's unit finished 12th in passing and seventh in rushing, good for ninth overall. That is a staggering turnaround considering the lack of a talent infusion. There has never been a better advertisement for the importance of play sequencing. It helps when the quarterback can run, something Jones did 55 more times in 2022 than he had any of his first three seasons. None of this is to say the Giants were truly good. They finished the year in a 3-5-1 rut and were one of three playoff teams with a negative point differential. But they finally have a coach who hunts for solutions instead of banging his head against the wall. 2022 was the start of something new in New York.
6. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys won a playoff game. Shouldn't that be enough? Not if you call yourself “America's Team” and haven't so much as reached a conference championship contest since the 1995 season. It is winter in Dallas and that can only mean one thing: Recriminations. What cost us the season? Was it Dak Prescott's turnovers? Mike McCarthy's reliably-conservative decision-making? Roster building that left the Cowboys with a $160 million quarterback but only one wide receiver to throw to? It was all of the above. It also doesn't really matter. This is a good team that has built a dominant defense and has more than enough building blocks on offense. It just doesn't have the goodwill after three decades of failing to live up to the country's — and owner's — expectations. “Super Bowl or bust” has become a canned phrase. It's also the moment-to-moment reality for this franchise that has little trouble getting to the doorstep but clams up when it's time to knock.
5. Buffalo Bills
The culture has changed. Two years ago, the Bills were happy just to win a playoff game. Now they're bitterly disappointed after being dispatched in the Divisional Round. That's the double-edged sword of “Super Bowl or bust.” Small victories are no longer enough, even when you just emerged from a 25-year drought without a postseason win. The disappointment is understandable after the Bills entered Week 17 “controlling their own destiny” for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Only then they received the most visceral reminder that “destiny” and “control” never actually go together. Every-down safety Damar Hamlin nearly died on the field in Cincinnati and nothing was quite the same afterward. The Bills zombie marched through a Week 18 win over the Patriots before nearly losing to the seventh-seeded Dolphins in the Wild Card Round, a game they thought they would be avoiding two weeks prior. By the time they finally played the Bengals in the Divisional, all their biggest issues were on full display. Too many turnovers since Josh Allen injured his elbow in Week 9. Not enough sacks since Von Miller blew out his knee in Week 12. A lack of an overall identity on offense after losing Brian Daboll to the Giants. Football history is littered with teams who reached the doorstep only to be humbled. The Bills thought this was the year for their Super Bowl. They can't let the disappointment make them go bust in 2023.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals started 0-2 but finished 12-4. They went 7-0 after their Week 10 bye and flattened the Bills in the Divisional Round to set up an AFC Championship Game rematch with the Chiefs. Then too many players played to type. Even a hobbled Patrick Mahomes was able to conduct yet another game-winning drive while Joe Burrow's protection collapsed under a one-man Chris Jones avalanche. If condensing the narrative of the Bengals' season down to one game seems uncharitable, it's meant to be the opposite. Because that's just who they are now. This is a group that is going to be coasting through some regular seasons running with the AFC's big dogs for postseason supremacy. For some teams, a winning record comes down to 1-2 plays. For the Bengals, it's Super Bowl appearances. Burrow is just that good, while his supporting cast is elite in all the right places … save one. Whereas Ja'Marr Chase might already be the most valuable skill player in the NFL and DC Lou Anarumo keeps his unit in any contest no matter the talent at hand, Burrow's protection remains minor league. Part of it is the quarterback's own making. He likes to hold the ball and make plays. But too much of it remains the men up front. Fix that issue, and the Bengals could start playing their yearly Chiefs coin flip in Cincinnati instead of Arrowhead Stadium.
3. San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowls, they don't come easy. The 49ers have learned this the hardest possible way the past two seasons, beginning with Jaquiski Tartt's dropped interception in last year's NFC Championship Game. But there was no hangover from that game even as nature seemed intent on delivering one. Kyle Shanahan's 2022 squad survived the loss of its Week 1 quarterback. It then survived the loss of his highly-paid backup, winning eight straight games with the literal final pick of the draft. Only then did the camel's back break. Brock Purdy blew out his elbow in the opening moments of the NFC Championship Game and a team that had won 12 straight contests wasn't even competitive in Philadelphia. It, of course, is remarkable Shanny's gang was even there in the first place. So is the power of offensive scheme and defensive personnel. Not that the offensive personnel were lacking. Christian McCaffrey joined the already top-shelf skill group of Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk, leaving the Niners literally only a quarterback short. It is that biggest of questions that continues to vex Shanahan. If Lance answers it in 2023, we will have a juggernaut on our hands.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
The best team in football if Patrick Mahomes did not exist, the Eagles put the finishing touches on their latest reload with startling efficiency. No. 3 in offensive EPA and No. 4 on defense, the Eagles gained the third most yards and allowed the second fewest. Coach Nick Sirianni finished No. 1 in Football Outsiders' “critical call index,” a complicated metric that measures fourth down decision-making. No offense converted more fourth downs. That was thanks in large part to dual-threat Jalen Hurts. Supposedly a question mark, Hurts became an MVP candidate as A.J. Brown's arrival made the Eagles' previously run-heavy attack the most versatile in football. The leveled-up offense was complemented by a defense that tallied 15 more sacks than any other unit. Jonathan Gannon's group suppressed the pass and clamped down against the run following the late-season reinforcements of Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph. The Eagles were the last undefeated team in football and the NFC's No. 1 seed even though Hurts missed Weeks 16 and 17. They were a perfect football machine that happened to run into the league's most unstoppable buzzsaw in Mahomes at the most inopportune time. Even then, they may have won if not for an unfortunate fumble or subtle jersey tug. That's life in the NFL. The Eagles will be back next year.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
How do you compete with that? The Chiefs traded one of the five best receivers in the NFL and Patrick Mahomes still led the league in yards and touchdowns, winning his second MVP award. Mahomes is the best football player on the planet and is paid like it, chewing up 17 percent of the Chiefs' salary cap in 2022. That has traditionally been a problem, as no team had previously hoisted a Lombardi with their QB counting more than 12.5 percent of their total against the cap. Mahomes solved that issue and his receiver conundrum by not only being the most valuable player in football, but leaps and bounds better than anyone else, lapping the field in both traditional metrics and EPA. When you combine Mahomes' era-defining play with Andy Reid's still elite play-calling and a top-heavy roster that managed to put the non-Mahomes heft in the right places — Travis Kelce and Chris Jones — you have a problem that is only going to become more difficult for the rest of the league to solve. Mahomes is better on one leg than most quarterbacks are on two. Best of luck to the other 31 franchises.
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