Labor Day. Time to stick my neck on the line so you can throw tomatoes at it, and at my head.
I’m picking an Arctic Circle Super Bowl: Buffalo-Green Bay.
I’m picking the Packers to make their first Super Bowl in 12 years by—isn’t it ironic?—going on the road to get there. Man, wouldn’t that be sweet for Aaron Rodgers. And I’m picking the Bills to get off the 0-4, three-decades-old, wide-right schneid to win the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Portable tables of western New York, beware.
Buffalo was almost good enough to win it last year, as we all saw, marauding through the AFC playoffs with 83 points in eight quarters. Then the thud of overtime in Kansas City happened. This year, I think they eliminate all doubts, and all doubters.
Re the Packers: I think a purported weakness, the post-Davante Adams receiver room, won’t be as bad as most think. Green Bay has a cadre of young prove-it receivers who I believe will be mentally whipped into shape by Rodgers as the year progresses, and who will respond well to the patient coaching of Matt LaFleur. It’s a better roster 1 to 53 (including the kicking game, which doomed the Pack last season) with a defense that should be a top-five NFL unit by December.
There’s a rejuvenated quarterback too. Rodgers is one of those guys who loves when he’s doubted. I mean, truly loves it. No Adams now, and Rodgers figures, just watch me. We’ll be fine. That plus his three days in Peru taking psychedelics on his ayahuasca journey … The Rodgers who takes the field this year will be a slightly different guy, a guy who told me he loves football more than he ever has. “I think I just fell in love with it a little deeper,” he said. For Rodgers, there’s much to prove after the disappointments of home playoff losses as the top seed the last two years, though.
Whoever makes it out of the NFC, Buffalo is ridiculously formidable. Lots can change in five months, but Buffalo’s got the best roster in football. Including the most dangerous quarterback.
I remember sitting in the press box in Orchard Park last January, early in the second half of Patriots-Bills. It was insanely cold, minus-5 wind chill, but the Bills were playing like it was a pleasant western New York September evening, 67 and still. How is the weather not affecting them? And how is a Bill Belichick D not affecting them? Thirty-six minutes in, it was 33-3, the most embarrassing big-stage game in Belichick’s illustrious career.
That, in itself, said a lot. How many times has Bill Belichick been embarrassed in his coaching career, really just taken to the woodshed? That’s what the Bills did that night. That’s what Josh Allen did. I was sure I was watching the Super Bowl winner.
“Guys executed at a high level that night,” Allen told me in camp. “That was a fun game, a good game, one that a lot of Bills fans are gonna talk about for a long time. But in terms of what we’re doing, it’s on to next week, and that’s how we are now, this summer.”
The 42-36 overtime loss in Kansas City eight days later didn’t scar what I thought of this team entering 2022. There was one major benefit to the heartbreak in Missouri—it forced GM Brandon Beane to buttress the pass-rush by paying huge money for a 33-year-old edge player, Von Miller. Now, Miller’s probably going to the Hall of Fame one day, and he upgrades Buffalo’s rush immeasurably. But he’s 33, and he’s got to last five months, and he’s got to be playing at his peak at the end of those five months. That’s a big question mark, but it’s also a challenge the Bills are happy to be able to manage.
Offensively, with Stefon Diggs aided by solid number two receiver Gabriel Davis (two playoff games, five touchdown catches) and shifty Isaiah McKenzie installed in the slot, Allen’s got enough firepower to be the best version of himself. He could be a different version, though. The Bills don’t talk about this openly, but the sense I got is they want Allen to throttle down on running the ball. He’s averaged 105 rushes per season in four years, with a career-high 122 last year. It’s a great way to keep the defense off balance, of course, but there’s a cost.
“What’d you do this off-season to improve your game?” I asked Allen in camp.
His answer was telling. “The first part of the off-season was very heavy in recovery,” Allen said. “Letting my body kinda heal up. I took a lot of dings last year. Understanding where I can be better in that process. Not taking hits, not taking useless hits. Getting out of bounds, sliding. In terms of just watching film and understanding when the decision is to maybe put the shoulder down or to slide or get out of bounds. I think that’s one aspect that I’ve started looking at and incorporating in my plan. The best part of ability is availability and I want to be available for this team.”
If that costs a few first downs in September and October, and if Allen’s fresher in January and February, it’s a wise change in his game.
Five compelling contenders, to me, who could up-end the playoff picture:
L.A. Chargers. Wideout Mike Williams got re-signed. The generous defensive front (2021: 4.6 yards per rush allowed) got rebuilt. Big defensive pieces J.C. Jackson and Khalil Mack got imported. And another piece of the front wall for Justin Herbert—first-round pick Zion Johnson—got drafted. A strategic off-season. A necessary off-season.
The Chargers must prove those holes not only got filled, but got filled by impact players. It’s ridiculous with the talent they have that they lost seven of 12 to end the season, that they ran roughshod over Cincinnati and won by 19—and lost to Baltimore by 28, Denver by 15 and Houston by 12. The Chargers averaged 34 points a game in December and January, and when the crushing 35-32 overtime loss in Vegas ended their season, GM Tom Telesco thought: “I cannot believe we’re not making the playoffs.” This year, I think Herbert continues his development. Hard to say he’ll be better, because his 69 TD passes and 9,350 passing yards entering year three are the most for a QB in NFL history. Doing enough to seal weaknesses, and having a worker-bee sponge with a great right arm … to me, that’s enough for this talented team to take a big step and end Kansas City’s six-year run as AFC West champs.
New Orleans. I’ve gotten smitten with the Saints this summer. I love how they turned a weak wide receiver corps in 2021 into the biggest strength on the roster with a big if—if Michael Thomas can come back to health after two injury-ruined seasons. Rookie Chris Olave and homecoming vet Jarvis Landry give the receiver group a shot of adrenaline that will help Jameis Winston be the best he can be coming off his torn ACL. The Saints were smart to add insurance in top backup Andy Dalton. It’s unsaid around the team and a bit of an elephant in the room: If Winston struggles or is gimpy, Dalton will be a good guy to bring out of the bullpen, to keep the Saints winning. One key question is how much the offense will miss Sean Payton’s imagination. He was a bit of a nutty professor in quarterback and offensive meetings. I wrote about this in 2018—Payton once practiced a quarterback-less formation, with Drew Brees and Taysom Hill both split wide, until the last few seconds on the play clock when Hill hustled behind center to take a direct snap and run with it. Will that be missed, or will offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael continue the mind-bending offensive stuff? We’ll see.
Dennis Allen knows he inherited a great situation. As he told me in the preseason: “It’s like walking into your house on Thanksgiving and the table’s set and the food’s ready. All I’ve got to do is carve the turkey.” The Saints think they’ve got a long-term star at corner opposite Marshon Lattimore in the 6-1, 195-pound Paulson Adebo, who is nursing a sore ankle entering the season that’s not thought to be serious. All in all, I like the team that’s 4-1 against the Bucs since the arrival of Tom Brady to unseat Tampa in the AFC South.
Baltimore. I’d contend that—even though no team played more players in history than Tennessee in 2021—the Ravens had worse injury luck last year. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley lost for the season in week one, the running back room ravaged by ACL tears, Lamar Jackson missing five of the last eight games, and the best corner duo (Marlon Humphrey/Marcus Peters) in football missing a total of 22 games. Brutal. Jackson and the corners are back, and there is hope for Stanley to play early in the season. But Stanley’s got much to prove after missing 26 games in the past two years with a nagging ankle injury.
I think the Ravens have a lot going for them, which is why I’m picking them to win the AFC North. First-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has been a big change from Wink Martindale. Whereas Martindale wanted to dominate the offense every day in practice, Macdonald uses practice to experiment and try to get better. Edge player Odafe Oweh could be one of the beneficiaries, a surprise rising star in year two; how crazy is it he had zero sacks as a Penn State senior in 2020? On the other side of the ball, look for fourth-round tight end Isaiah Likely, a training-camp revelation, to be in a lot of two-tight-end formations with Mark Andrews (107 catches, 1,361 yards last year). When the offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, isn’t a bombs-away guy, that makes for loads of possibilities with the tight ends in intermediate spaces. Of course, the key will be Jackson. It sounds dubious that he’ll get a contract done before opening day, but I doubt it will affect his performance much.
L.A. Rams. Back in my Giants’ coverage days in the late eighties, I once asked Bill Parcells why the NFC East was on such a great playoff run. Teams from the division made the Super Bowl five times between 1982 and 1990, winning the big game four times. “We’re battle-tested,” he said. “Our division’s so tough, and San Francisco and Chicago are so tough in the conference. If you survive that, you’re in good shape for the playoffs.” Will that work for the Rams this year? Big question. Of their 17 regular-season games, 12 (tied for most in the league) are against teams with winning records last year. How about this five-week stretch starting in week eight: San Francisco, at Tampa Bay, Arizona, at New Orleans, at Kansas City. How about this run of QB foes starting in week 14: Derek Carr (on a short week), at Aaron Rodgers (maybe in a snow globe), Russell Wilson, at Justin Herbert (well, road team at SoFi). The .567 opposing win percentage is significantly tougher than the second-toughest slate (Arizona, .543).
I actually don’t mind getting the toughest game—Buffalo, at home—out of the way on Thursday of week one, because you’ve got a mini-bye after that and a week-two home game with Atlanta. But the reward for winning the Super Bowl is the toughest schedule in football this year. One football issue: Matthew Stafford’s staying power with his balky throwing elbow. I saw him on one of his most strenuous throwing days of the summer, in an Aug. 16 team scrimmage, when he threw fastballs and touch throws all over the field and looked great. Stafford told me that day the elbow was nothing to worry about—he said he’d managed it well all last season. If he’s right, the battled-tested Rams will be a hard out in January.
Denver. I didn’t pick the Broncos to make the playoffs, which I’ll probably live to regret. This year’s AFC West is the toughest division I remember since the NFL went to eight four-team divisions in 2002; all four teams have at least 10 games against 2021 teams with winning records. I picked the Chargers and Kansas City to make the post-season, but nothing will shock me. As one coach told me on my camp tour: “No road team winning an AFC West game this year will be an upset.” Think of that. Best line I heard on my camp tour.
The Broncos have been revived by the ownership change and the trade for Russell Wilson. Though Wilson turns 34 this year, his energy and approach screams 24—and if his body holds up, he should still be a player at 40 years, 1 month—when this contract is up. The reason Wilson and agent Mark Rodgers worked so hard with GM George Paton and cap guy Rich Hurtado to get the five-year, $245-million extension done last week is that Wilson, as he went through training camp, was positive he’d gotten to the right place to spend the rest of his career. He knew because of sessions like he had last Monday—when he and coach Nathaniel Hackett spent a couple of hours inside the Denver facility in an office together, just the two of them, watching tape, scribbling plays and formations and adjustments on a white board. Together. In Denver, Wilson feels he has a bit of authorship with someone he considers a football savant, Hackett. It’s the kind of relationship he’s wanted with his play-caller and play-author. That’s why Rodgers spent four days in Denver hashing out the deal with Hurtado, and why Wilson thinks this is the perfect place to spend the second half of his career.
How I see the playoff races:
1.Buffalo (13-4). Finishing 6-0 in the AFC East makes all the difference when so many contenders have tough division slates.
2. Baltimore (11-6). Decimated by injury in 2021, fairly healthy in 2022—including at quarterback. Important in Joe Burrow’s division.
3. LA Chargers (11-6). Accomplishment of the year: Chargers going 4-2 in the toughest division since the 2002 realignment into eight divisions.
4. Tennessee (10-7). Slight nod over the Colts, by virtue of the Titans averaging 35 a game against Indy in their last three meetings, all wins.
5. Kansas City (11-6). It’s almost pick-‘em with the Chargers, because I think the passing game will be fine post-Tyreek.
6. Cincinnati (10-7). The first-place schedule brings Cincinnati down to earth a bit, but the Bengals will be a threat still.
*Tiebreaker: Miami over Indianapolis (9-8) and Las Vegas (9-8).
Wild card: Baltimore over Miami, LA Chargers over Cincinnati, Kansas City over Tennessee.
Divisional: Buffalo over Kansas City, LA Chargers over Baltimore.
AFC Championship, at Buffalo: Buffalo 26, LA Chargers 20.
1. New Orleans (12-5). Note of the week: Saints have beaten Tom Brady’s Bucs in all four regular-season meetings, and none of the four has been a one-score game.
2. Green Bay (12-5). Minnesota threatens, but Aaron Rodgers figures out how to make Romeo Doubs a factor early, and off they go.
4. LA Rams (10-7). This is still a very good team. But it’s a very good team facing a murderous schedule, starting with the Bills in three days.
5. Minnesota (11-6). Is this the year Eric Kendricks finally gets credit for being a top-five NFL ‘backer?
6. Tampa Bay (10-7). Just too much noise and too many injuries around this team. Talent, and Brady, makes the Bucs still a factor.
7. San Francisco (10-7)*. We interrupt this endless quarterback story to remind you the other 51 players on this roster are pretty good.
*Tiebreaker: San Francisco over Dallas (10-7).
Wild card: Green Bay over San Francisco, Tampa Bay over Philadelphia, LA Rams over Minnesota.
Divisional: New Orleans over Tampa Bay, Green Bay over LA Rams.
NFC Championship, at New Orleans: Green Bay 30, New Orleans 17.
Super Bowl 57, at Glendale, Ariz., Feb. 12, 2023: Buffalo 30, Green Bay 23.
Envelope, please: The 2022 postseason awards, given here, five months before they actually happen:
MVP: 1. Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo, 2. Justin Herbert, QB, LA Chargers, 3. Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore.
Quarterbacks have won the MVP nine straight years and 14 of the past 15 years. Thus QBs going 1-2-3. Recently, MVP has traditionally gone to a quarterback on a top seed. That, plus Allen’s going to have a killer year.
I’m projecting Taylor to win the rushing title, and if so, he’d be the third back-to-back rushing champ in the last 20 years (Tomlinson 2006, ’07; Henry 2019, ’20). I think he’ll come very close to matching his 1,811-yard season from last year. I told Taylor in training camp that his coach, Frank Reich, told me, “He has no weaknesses in his game. None. Zero.” Asked him how that made him feel. “It makes me want to go out on Sundays and prove him right,” Taylor said.
This award, 51 years old, has had three three-time winners: Lawrence Taylor, J.J. Watt and Aaron Donald. (Two-time winners: Reggie White, Bruce Smith, Ray Lewis, Mike Singletary, Joe Greene.) No one’s won it four times. Donald, while not dwelling on history, appreciates it, and a fourth DPOY would ensure his spot on the Mount Rushmore of defensive players in modern NFL history.
Olave’s targets entering the season depend on the health and productivity of Michael Thomas and perhaps Jarvis Landry, but I think he’ll be right on their level by mid-October. “I come from Ohio State, and Ohio State’s a professional-ran program,” Olave told me in camp. Ohio State and LSU: Cradles of NFL receivers who hit the ground running in the pros.
A bit of a shot in the dark, because, unfortunately, corners have to have picks to win this award. Gardner will have some high-profile matchups, with the Jets facing Stefon Diggs, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill and whoever Aaron Rodgers is throwing to a total of seven games.
Coach: 1. John Harbaugh, Baltimore, 2. Dennis Allen, New Orleans, 3. Brandon Staley, LA Chargers.
This is an impossible category to project on Labor Day, because so many other elements than wins factor in. Last year, Mike Vrabel survived a season with the most active players in NFL history to win the top AFC seed. Something like that happens, and the voting can be messed up. Harbaugh could do it if the Ravens are the only team to go from worst (in the AFC North) to first in 2022.
McCaffrey’s a heavy favorite in my book, because when you’ve missed 13 and 10 games the past two years after playing your first 48 without injury, and you were a sensation in those 48, pretty much all you’ve got to do in year six is stay healthy for 17 weeks. Production will follow. That’s the big question, staying healthy. But I think McCaffery’s got a good shot to do so.
Game 272: The final game of the regular season, for all the marbles in the AFC North, will pit 10-6 Baltimore at 10-6 Cincinnati. There’s some drama. Ravens win, cop the second seed in the AFC, send Bengals on the road in the playoffs.
Surprise records: Detroit 7-10, New England 7-10, Jacksonville 7-10.
QB changes: Kenny Pickett for Mitchell Trubisky in mid-October, Drew Lock yo-yos with Geno Smith starting in late October, Jimmy Garoppolo for Trey Lance prior to facing Kansas City in week seven, Desmond Ridder for Marcus Mariota in November, Tyrod Taylor for Daniel Jones in December. A rusty Deshaun Watson goes 3-3 in his six late-season post-suspension games in Cleveland. These things happen when you haven’t played a game of football in 100 weeks.
Difference-making assistant coaches
1. Joe Cullen, defensive line, Kansas City. Remember the oddest result of 2021? Jacksonville 9, Buffalo 6, with Josh Allen being totally frustrated all day. That was the handiwork of Cullen in his one season as Jags’ defensive coordinator. Cullen should work wonders with lots of toys on the KC line, buttressed by rookie edge guy George Karlaftis.
2. Rich Bisaccia, special teams, Green Bay. After the Packers lost the divisional game to the Niners on a blocked punt last January, they made Bisaccia (reportedly) the highest-paid special-teams coach in history and gave him the authority to use players from all over the roster to resuscitate the morbid kicking game. He told the players: “The only ‘I’ I want to hear in here is, ‘What can I do to help us win?’” Results should follow.
3. Raheem Morris, defensive coordinator, LA Rams. I documented his coaching wiles two weeks ago in this space, pointing out how he picked out rookie linebacker Ernest Jones to change roles at halftime of the Super Bowl, and his pass-rush in the second half helped unnerve Joe Burrow. Morris will have a major impact on incorporating new blood on a run to repeat.
I’m on a four-year run of picking Super Bowl winners on Labor Day weekend, which is shocking in Peter King history. My forever record says I stink at this, but maybe with age comes wisdom.
Anyway, my last four preseason Super Bowl picks in Football Morning in America, followed by the result of the real game:
Super Bowl 56: Rams over Buffalo (Rams 23, Cincinnati 20).
Super Bowl 55: Tampa Bay over Baltimore (Tampa Bay 31, Kansas City 9).
Super Bowl 54: Kansas City over New Orleans (KC 31, San Francisco 20).
Super Bowl 53: New England over Rams (New England 13, Rams 3).