The NFL season is always full of twists and turns, but the 2022 campaign has offered more stunning results than most. The rise of the Jets, Giants, and Seahawks alongside the downfall of the Buccaneers, Packers, and Broncos provide several examples, but even among teams that have played to expectations in the standings, there are groups like the Chargers who are nothing close to the team most expected.
We’ll get into where all of this is trending, but before we do, be sure to sign up for The Oracle’s Picks to get lines from the NCAA, NFL, and other pro sports texted directly to your phone! The Oracle is putting together a heck of a run in 2022 – get in on the action before the year passes us by!
Now, let’s get into a look at the rapidly clarifying NFL playoff races, the surprise teams in contention, and what the dark horses must do to get back into the race.
AFC: 7 Winning Records with an 8th to Come?
After Week 7, the Bills, Jets, Dolphins, Ravens, Bengals, Titans, Chiefs, and Chargers hold winning records, and the Patriots have a chance to push that number to eight if they can win their Monday Night game against Chicago. Throw in the Raiders, who picked up a win to get to 2-4 with more favorable matchups ahead of them, and a ninth team could throw its hat into the AFC Playoff race.
The depth of competition in this field was expected, even if a few of the competitors were not. The Bills have posted a league-best +95 point differential and only narrowly lost to the Dolphins, and the Chiefs made it clear they are among the NFL’s elites by drubbing the 49ers a week after losing a back-and-forth game against the Bills a week earlier.
Beyond that, the field is murkier. The Jets are on a four-game winning streak since quarterback Zach Wilson returned to the field, but Wilson has thrown for 121, 110, 210, and 252 yards in those games, leaving some question about whether the 5-2 Jets can continue to have success with rookie running back Breece Hall likely done for the season with an ACL injury. Miami won in their first game with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa back on the field, but the Steelers’ defense helped them out by missing some opportunities for turnovers. Meanwhile, Baltimore narrowly escaped the Browns, the Chargers lost to the Seahawks in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 37-23 final indicated, and Tennessee’s advantageous position is due largely to the ineptitude of the other teams in the AFC South.
Cincinnati might be one team trending in the right direction, as the Bengals have posted 65 points in the past two weeks after some offensive struggles in the season’s first month, but it’s also possible that had a lot to do with playing the Saints and Falcons. The Bengals have another good opportunity coming up against an injury-depleted Browns defense, a critical game, as it can help ensure that Cleveland is out of the NFL playoff race by the time Deshaun Watson returns to the lineup.
Of the AFC Bets to make the playoffs on DraftKings, The Professor likes the Bengals at -150. The AFC East teams will cannibalize each other, and while the Ravens do have the head-to-head win over the Bengals, it’s a surprise to see Baltimore’s playoff odds at -500 while Cincinnati’s sit at -150.
NFC: Five Teams Above .500
There is not nearly as much depth in the NFC Standings, where losses by the Bucs, Falcons, 49ers, and Packers added to the number of teams with losing records in the conference. As it stands, the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys, Vikings, and Seahawks are the only five NFC teams with a record above .500.
It’s a situation that sets up for teams such as the Packers, Buccaneers, Rams, 49ers, and Cardinals to find some semblance of their 2021 form and get back to playing playoff-caliber football. As bleak as the situation appears for all of these teams at present, each NFL season seems to bring at least one team that rings off four or five straight wins to clinch an improbable playoff berth, and once a team is in the NFL’s tournament, anything can happen.
As easy as it is to say that the Eagles, who are 6-0, and the Cowboys, who have quarterback Dak Prescott back in the fold, stand out from the field, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Cardinals took the Eagles to the wire a few weeks ago before mental mistakes short-circuited Arizona’s comeback attempt. Philadelphia has posted an NFC-best +56 point differential so far, so there’s nothing fluky about their record, but it’s worth remembering that the gap between the 6-0 Eagles and the handful of teams hovering at or below .500 may not be as great as it seems at the moment.
Of the odds for teams to make the NFL Playoffs on DraftKings, The Professor’s favorite play is the Seahawks at +225. Despite heavy offseason skepticism, which The Professor certainly bought into, the Seahawks have put together a squad as competitive as most in the NFC. The injury to DK Metcalf during Sunday’s game hurts, but between Geno Smith’s steady play at quarterback and the emergence of Kenneth Walker III at running back, Seattle seems like a solid bet to turn their 4-3 start into at least a Wild Card berth in the watered-down NFC.
NFC South: A Champ with a Losing Record
Every few years, the NFL produces a division champ with a losing record, sparking all sorts of debate about whether the NFL Playoff system needs an overhaul. If a fan had to guess which division might be in this spot before the season, most probably would have guessed the AFC South or NFC East, the latter of which is comical in hindsight. The other two candidates might have been the AFC East and NFC South, but it appeared that Buffalo and Tampa Bay were too talented for that scenario to play out.
Buffalo certainly is that talented, though they have not lacked for competition, but things haven’t played out that way for Tampa Bay. The Bucs appeared poised to take a lead (and hit one of The Professor’s prop bets) when Mike Evans ran into the open on a post route two minutes into the Panthers game, but his drop, and Tampa Bay’s subsequent failure to score in the first half, was another example of things not clicking in Tampa Bay. Early in the season, it seemed likely that some of their red-zone turnovers and the injury issues at receiver would resolve themselves, but there’s no way to count on that after Sunday’s beatdown at the hands of the rebuilding Carolina Panthers.
Atlanta might be leading the division were it not for Grady Jarrett’s penalty against Tampa Bay, but quarterback Marcus Mariota also attempted only 13 passes in their 35-17 loss to the Bengals, which makes it blatantly obvious that Atlanta doesn’t have the passing game to compete in the modern NFL. Throw in the fact that a once-great Saints defense has fallen off mightily after they sent stud defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to the Eagles for half a pizza, and you’ve got an NFC South that is struggling to produce a legitimate contender.
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.