Week 18 brought a wrap to the highly anticipated 2021/22 NFL regular season that was filled with thrills and highlights.
The Green Bay Packers finished with the best record (13-4) while the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-14) were bottom of the pile again – the second year in a row that they will have the first overall draft pick after they drafted quarterback Trevor Lawrence last year.
Seven teams qualified for the NFL Playoffs from each conference, the same as last year. They comprise of a total of eight division winners and six wildcard teams. For more on this year’s playoffs, check out The Boar Sport’s 2021/22 NFL Playoffs preview.
The Cincinnati Bengals had the last laugh in the AFC North, winning the fluctuating division with a 10-7 record. Their decision to draft Ja’Marr Chase in the 2021 NFL Draft was lambasted by many but has proved to be a smart decision given the firepower he brought to Cincinnati. They qualified for the playoffs as the AFC’s fourth seed.
Behind them in the North were the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Tomlin’s men finished 9-7-1 on the season, a disappointing record but enough to send them to January football. It came down to Week 18 where the Steelers overcame the Baltimore Ravens 16-13 in dramatic fashion.
Long-time Steelers quarterback and legend Ben Roethlisberger has announced that this will be his final season of football, giving the franchise an extra push to make a Super Bowl run. With the changing of the guard at quarterback imminent, expect the Steelers to overhaul their team over the next few years as coach Tomlin has also been linked away from the Black and Gold.
T.J. Watt was one of the brightest spots for the Steelers, however. The defensive menace single-handedly won games for his side and, ultimately, earned himself 22.5 sacks – tying Gordon Strahan’s single-season record and leading the league.
The Cleveland Browns ended the season 8-9 with a win over the Bengals in the season finale. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has looked inconsistent this year due to various shoulder injuries that have affected his play. While the team has some studs, they will need Mayfield to find some more consistency next season if they want to make a playoff push. A disappointing season for the Browns.
It was also a disappointing season for the Baltimore Ravens, who finished bottom of the AFC North at 8-9. Injuries are unpredictable and the impact of Lamar Jackson’s injuries undoubtedly derailed this team. There are a few holes on this team that need to be filled – the wide receiver position comes to mind – but expect them to be competitive again next year in what promises to be a very strong AFC North division.
One team that managed to keep momentum despite key injuries was the Tennessee Titans. Winning the AFC South and qualifying as the top AFC seed marks a remarkable year for coach Mike Vrabel’s team. To make it more impressive, they managed it despite various injuries to star receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, as well as a long-term injury to the league’s best running back, Derrick Henry. Props should be given to Vrabel and quarterback Ryan Tannehill for keeping the team together – they were ultimately rewarded with a 12-5 record.
The rest of the AFC South was less impressive, which was perhaps part of the reason for the Titans’ success. The Indianapolis Colts will be kicking themselves after missing out on the NFL Playoffs courtesy of an embarrassing defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the final week. They finished 9-8.
Despite a disappointing season, running back Jonathan Taylor had an excellent sophomore season, exploding for over 2,000 yards on the ground. He is in the Offensive Player of the Year contention.
Further down the pecking order were the Houston Texans, who finished third in the AFC South at 4-13. Their season had been doomed to failure from the very beginning, and certainly looked like a prime ‘tanking’ candidate. They find themselves with the third overall pick as they look to start afresh.
Much of the Texans’ season was plagued by trade rumours surrounding Deshaun Watson. His legal trouble off the field made it a complicated season, making him ultimately stay put. He did not play a game for the Texans, however, and his exit should be a priority for Houston.
David Culley has since been sacked as head coach of the Texans, perhaps an expected decision after what has been a tough season.
At the bottom of the AFC South and the NFL, are the 3-14 Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags’ season was tormented by criticism of former Head Coach Urban Meyer, who was relieved of his duties in the middle of the season. Finding a new coach to develop first overall pick Lawrence will be crucial. With the top pick again this year, expect them to take the best player available (my bet is on Aidan Hutchinson or Kayvon Thibodeaux, but more NFL Draft buzz coming soon…).
A team that was recently towards the bottom of the NFL, but has moved up of late, are the Buffalo Bills. The Bills retained their AFC East title thanks to an 11-6 record, but they face a dangerous New England Patriots side in the wildcard round of the playoffs. The truth is, despite being the AFC’s third-ranked team, the Bills have had their fair share of struggles this season. They will need to make sure that they are on the same page for the playoffs, especially at the start of games, something they struggled with a lot this season.
As mentioned, the Bills will face the AFC’s sixth-seeded Patriots in the first round of the NFL Playoffs. The Patriots looked a rejuvenated side after a huge offseason spending spree. Under coach Bill Belichick, they have found a rather impenetrable system and look like one of the most disciplined and threatening defensive sides in the NFL currently. It no doubt helped that rookie quarterback Mac Jones played beyond expectations – he is in contention for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Third in the AFC East are the Miami Dolphins, who recently fired their coach, Brian Flores. It is a baffling decision given that Flores led the team from bottom of the pile a couple of years ago to a 9-8 record this year. Flores is one of the top candidates in this year’s coach cycle.
The Dolphins will need to find a coach to compliment former Alabama quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. Coaching consistency is key for any young quarterback and so the Dolphins need to make sure they get the next appointment right. Tagovailoa had a decent season but is still a work in progress – his development will be key to the franchise’s success over the next three years.
The basement-dwellers of the AFC East were the New York Jets once again at 4-13. They will have the fourth overall pick to bolster their team and build on a developmental debut season under Head Coach Robert Saleh and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, who showed flashes of excellence.
The Kansas City Chiefs, meanwhile, are seasoned competitors and are a force to be reckoned with in this year’s playoffs. They were crowned AFC West champions once again with a 12-5 record. While the team had many early season struggles – Patrick Mahomes’ turnovers, a shaky defence etc. – they managed to get their act together for the second half of the season. They are one of the hottest teams entering the wildcard round and will look to reach the Super Bowl for a third consecutive time.
The Las Vegas Raiders finished second in the AFC West, with a 10-7 record. Despite the successes of the year, it is hard to look past the off-field drama surrounding the Raiders over the course of the season.
The Raiders’ playoff berth came at the cost of Brandon Staley’s Los Angeles Chargers. The Week 18 game went down to the wire with Raiders’ kicker Daniel Carlson clinching it for his side. The loss put the Chargers at 9-8 and out of the playoff picture. With this being Justin Herbert’s sophomore season (and coach Staley’s first) however, the future is bright with the Bolts.
To round off the AFC, the Denver Broncos had a disappointing 7-10 record, which was perhaps already generous given how weak their opposition was at the start of the year. The team have subsequently fired coach Vic Fangio, which many felt was a rash decision by the organisation. The main issue for the Broncos is their quarterback – do they keep faith in Drew Lock for the future or draft someone new? Once they have a clearer future, the rest of the team can be adjusted, though their roster is very strong outside of the quarterback position (they had the third-ranked scoring defence).
A team which is in a vastly different position to the Broncos are the Green Bay Packers. The NFL’s top dog at 13-4 have MVP-favourite Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, who had another impressive season. At 38, Rodgers still has plenty left in the tank and the Packers need to do everything they can to hold onto him until he retires. Despite the ‘immunisation’ controversy, Rodgers has been the Packers’ most dependable player and gives the team a high floor. They welcome back David Bakhtiari and Za’Darius Smith for a playoff run, where the Pack will hope to get past the Conference Championship this time.
The Minnesota Vikings finished second in the NFC North, they ended with an 8-9 record which resulted in the firing of coach Mike Zimmer and manager Rick Spielman. The Vikings looked like a wildcard team at times this year but ultimately fell short. They have a playoff-calibre roster and Kirk Cousins just had an elite season that flew under the radar. A good hire at coach coupled with the usual smart draft decision will help bolster this team.
Another team that are changing up their staff are rivals Chicago Bears. Third in the NFC North at 6-11, Matt Nagy’s team were painful to watch, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Firing Nagy and GM Ryan Pace was the right decision, the Bears need to make the right hire too though. Having stolen Justin Fields in the draft last year, expect a new era to proceed in Chicago – they need to get behind Fields and build around him.
The Detroit Lions came last in the NFC North after a rough 3-13-1 season. Lions fans ought to be happy with how it went though, they certainly played better than their record suggests, with huge wins over the Packers and Cardinals as highlights. The questions surrounding coach Dan Campbell’s appointment ought to fade too, he has showed passion and class throughout, delivering a particularly poignant post-game interview in the aftermath of the Oxford shooting.
The Lions are young and will improve next year. The quarterback situation may be shaky for now, but they have a lot of draft capital and can build on a solid foundation.
On the other hand, a team that is in ‘win now’ mode due to their ageing roster is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL’s biggest super-team currently. Last season’s Super Bowl champions qualified as the second NFC seed, winning the NFC South at 13-4. The team is brimming with talent across the board, though they will be without star wide receiver Chris Godwin. Quarterback Tom Brady put together an elite season though, leading the league in passing yards, and is in the MVP discussion once again. Can he lead the Bucs to consecutive Lombardi Trophies?
Antonio Brown’s strange exit from Tampa Bay was no doubt one of the biggest talking points of the season. Given his off-field drama over the last few years, it is hard to imagine Brown getting a contract in the NFL again.
Another reason the Bucs are in ‘win now’ mode is due to how sought-after their coaching staff are. Both offensive and defensive coordinators Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles are prime candidates for head coaching jobs while head coach Bruce Arians is one of the older NFL coaches and close to retirement.
The New Orleans Saints lost their generational quarterback last season and finished 9-8, narrowly missing out on a wildcard spot. Much of the 2021/22 season was oriented around the departure of legend Drew Brees, with Jameis Winston taking up the mantle. Winston unfortunately suffered a season-ending injury early, however, and the Saints were plagued by both injuries and COVID throughout the year.
The Falcons clocked in at third in the NFC South, at 7-10. It’s a difficult situation in Atlanta where they have an ageing quarterback but are not ‘playoff ready’. This was only Arthur Amith’s first season though, so time next season will provide a better gauge for the Falcons.
One player that did benefit from Smith’s tutelage was Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the most exciting players on the Falcons roster. Rookie Kyle Pitts was also a standout while defensive back A.J. Terrell has proved to be one of the league’s top cornerbacks. Receiver Calvin Ridley took a break from football midway through the season to address some mental health issues, he is expected to return to action next season.
Bottom of the NFC South were the 5-12 Carolina Panthers. Despite making some splashy moves, including the acquisition of former Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, the Panthers had an underwhelming season. With a rotation of Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker and Cam Newton at quarterback, the Panthers need to find some stability at the position. Defensively, however, the team were solid and, as a young group, have a lot of promise for the near future.
One team that secured their quarterback for the long haul were the Dallas Cowboys, who finished 12-5. Dak Prescott is the prime candidate for Comeback Player of the Year after a sensational season that saw him break Tony Romo’s single season passing touchdowns record in Dallas.
Consistency can be an issue with ‘America’s Team’, but they make big plays when it counts, just look at Trevon Diggs, who led the league in interceptions this year. Rookie Micah Parsons was another standout – his rookie season was truly phenomenal – and his versatility was on full show as he earned himself a Pro Bowl selection at inside linebacker despite having no fixed position.
The rest of the NFC East was quite weak in comparison… The Philadelphia Eagles squeezed into the NFL Playoffs at 9-8. Jalen Hurts has been a standout – his dual-threat ability has been the main reason for the Eagles’ offensive success. There is certainly potential with the young Eagles, and they can add to their roster with an astounding three first-round picks in the NFL Draft.
The Washington Football Team came third in the NFC East at 7-10. With Ryan Fitzpatrick ruled out for the season in Week 1, Taylor Heinicke stepped up and looked great at quarterback. The holes in the roster were evident though as the team clearly have needs in nearly every department.
Perhaps bigger news coming out of Washington, however, is the up-and-coming reboot of the franchise. The team dropped its former name (Washington Redskins) and logo in the Summer of 2020 due to its offensive undertones. Since then, they have been rocking ‘The Washington Football Team’ but are set to unveil a new name and logo at the start of February.
Finally, at the bottom of the NFC East were the New York Giants at 4-13 – an atrocious season for them. Despite an ambitious offseason filled with ambitious moves, the Giants have been vastly disappointing with very few bright spots. The result? A staff overhaul. The Giants are currently in the hunt for a new Head Coach and General Manager. The players have potential, the Giants just need to harness it.
Contrary to the NFC East, the NFC West was full of high quality, explosive football. The Los Angeles Rams had their hiccups through the season but clinched the division with a 12-5 record. This marked the debut season of Matthew Stafford, who showed just why the Rams traded for him. It helped that he had wide receiver Cooper Kupp though. Kupp was the NFL’s leading receiver in all major categories and is a top candidate for this year’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Coach Sean McVay has been great against the Arizona Cardinals in recent history, and it just so happens that the Cardinals will be their opening playoff opponent. This promises to be a great game between two talented sides.
While talented, however, the Cardinals had a rough end to the season. A fast start propelled them to 7-0 but they only finished the season 11-6 – a losing record in the second half of the season. No doubt part of their slump was down to key injuries to star receiver DeAndre Hopkins and defensive lineman J.J. Watt though.
The third-placed San Francisco 49ers also qualified for the playoffs, which is testament to how strong the division was. At 10-7, the 49ers’ season felt shaky at times, but they pulled it together when it mattered, such as the clutch Week 18 win against the Rams. The main question for the 49ers remains at quarterback, but Jimmy Garoppolo has been solid of late and enters the playoffs with momentum.
At the bottom of the NFC West were the 7-10 Seahawks. With no first-round picks, the Seahawks are in a tricky position with regards to building for next season. Russell Wilson’s injuries derailed any hopes of a playoff push, and there is already buzz that their star quarterback will be leaving the franchise this Summer. There is also chatter that Head Coach Pete Carroll could be on his way out too. Time will tell what direction the Seahawks choose to go in.
So that draws an end to the NFL’s regular season, with the playoffs now underway. As always, the playoffs are quite unpredictable, though they promise to be entertaining as usual.
This year’s Super Bowl is on the 13th of February and will be held in the SoFi Stadium.
For teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs, the offseason awaits as they prepare for coaching and personnel changes.
The NFL Draft will mark the start of the 2022/23 season. It will commence on the 28th of April and will be held in Paradise, Nevada.