Now that we are halfway through the 2022 NFL regular season, it's about time we start looking at the playoff picture. It's incredible that the NFC East has three teams that have six or more wins, that the Seattle Seahawks are leading the NFC West and that the Minnesota Vikings have a 4.5-game lead over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. Will it stay this way, or are things bound to change?
Below, we will sort out the contenders and pretenders in the NFL. We will discuss all eight division leaders, and then the other teams that have the best records in the NFL. There are a few interesting teams that we won't discuss here such as the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals, but here are 12 teams right in the thick of the playoff race that we perceive to be either contenders or pretenders.
Buffalo Bills (6-2, 1st in AFC East)
The Bills have been the odds-on favorite to win Super Bowl LVII for some time now, and that hasn't changed ... even after their Week 9 loss to the New York Jets. Josh Allen did not look like himself on Sunday, as he threw for 205 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. The Bills are prone to have one or two of these losses a year. Remember when they lost to Urban Meyer and the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road last season? Statistically, the Bills still have the No. 1 offense in the NFL, and the No. 4 defense. The Bills are also 3-0 vs. current division leaders, beating the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans. They face another division leader this week in the Vikings. There is one concerning unknown: Allen's elbow injury is worrisome.
Kansas City Chiefs (6-2, 1st in AFC West)
The Chiefs are perennial contenders with Patrick Mahomes under center, although they didn't exactly "wow" NFL fans in prime time in Week 9. Mike Vrabel showed up with a rookie quarterback and zero wide receivers and took the Chiefs to overtime. Still, Mahomes leads the NFL in passing yards (2,605) and passing touchdowns (21) this season. He's on pace for an NFL single-season record 5,535 passing yards, and JuJu Smith-Schuster is rising to the occasion as his new No. 1 target. Plus, it's hard not to be intrigued by the addition of Kadarius Toney. The Chiefs may be prepared to play their best football, as Andy Reid's squad has won 23 straight games in November and December.
Kansas City statistically has the No. 2 offense behind Buffalo, but leads the league in points per game with 30.4.
Baltimore Ravens (6-3, 1st in AFC North)
The Ravens are a new addition to the "contenders" category. The main reason why is because of the improvement shown on defense. That 27-13 win over the New Orleans Saints on Monday night was impressive. The Saints came into that matchup with the No. 3 offense in the NFL, averaging 394.4 yards per game, but this Ravens defense held them to just 243 total yards. Justin Houston was fantastic with 2.5 sacks and an interception, Tyus Bowser made an impact in his return to the field and former Bear Roquan Smith clearly showed he can help this team. Rookie David Ojabo could make his debut soon and star safety Marcus Williams should return before the playoffs.
Offensively, I think everyone knows what the Ravens are. Lamar Jackson leads the No. 2 rushing offense in the league, and the offensive line is talented. Per PFF, Baltimore has the No. 1 pass-blocking line, and the No. 5 run-blocking line. I have the Ravens as the best team in the AFC North, and if they stay healthy, they could have an opportunity to make a run.
Philadelphia Eagles (8-0, 1st in NFC East)
The lone undefeated team in the NFL. Obviously, the Eagles are contenders. Also, when are they going to lose that first game? The Washington Commanders are up this week, followed by the Jeff Saturday-led Indianapolis Colts and then the struggling Packers. Jalen Hurts has won 11 straight regular-season starts and seemingly has endless options on offense with Miles Sanders, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert. As for the defense, it is the No. 3 overall unit in the league, allowing an average of 299 yards of total offense per game.
Dallas Cowboys (6-2, 2nd in NFC East)
We all have probably been fooled by the Cowboys at one point over the past few years, viewing them as contenders only for them to fall apart in a big game. But I have to say, I like this 2022 squad. The Cowboys are 2-0 straight up and against the spread since Dak Prescott returned to the starting lineup, and I think Tony Pollard has proven that he's worth giving more touches too. The main reason why I'm confident the Cowboys are contenders, however, is because of the defense. This unit is top five in the NFL in points allowed per game (16.6), yards per play (4.8) and first in sacks (33). Not only does this pass rush lead the NFL in sacks, but also in pressures (130) and PFF grade (84.6). Micah Parsons is of course a monster, and is the heavy favorite at this point to win Defensive Player of the Year (-260 over at Caesars Sportsbook). The NFC East may end up belonging to the Eagles, but the Cowboys are going to the playoffs, and have a chance to make a postseason run.
Minnesota Vikings (7-1, 1st in NFC North)
Kirk Cousins said after the Vikings' 20-17 win over the Commanders on Sunday that they are going to need to win more convincingly. Minnesota is 6-0 in one-score games this season, which are the most one-score wins without a loss in the NFL. I've been saying for a week now that that's the biggest difference between this year's Vikings team and last year's team. In 2021, they were 6-8 in one-possession games. Offensively, we all know how effective Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson are, but the addition of tight end T.J. Hockenson could be an impactful one. He caught all nine of his targets for 70 yards in his first action as a Viking.
Minnesota's defense currently ranks eighth-worst in the league with 368.1 yards of total offense allowed per game, but the Vikings do have the No. 10 run defense with an average of 111.3 rushing yards allowed per contest. We are going to find out if the Vikings are real contenders here soon enough, as they take on the Bills and Cowboys in their next two games.
New York Jets (6-3, 2nd in AFC East)
The Jets are one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season, currently sitting with a 6-3 record halfway through the year. This is because of their impressive defense and the run game. New York has held opponents to 20 or fewer points in five out of its past six games, and sacked Allen five times last week. Losing Breece Hall was a huge hit to the offense, but Michael Carter looked solid in the Buffalo victory, and James Robinson is certainly a good running mate. Quarterback Zach Wilson looks better than he did last year, but he's not winning games with his arm. He also struggles mightily against pressure, which is something the Bills apparently didn't know, since they only got pressure on him on four drop-backs -- a season low. There's no doubt that the Jets are on the right track as a franchise, but I don't view them as a legitimate threat to hoist the Lombardi trophy.
Miami Dolphins (6-3, 3rd in AFC East)
The Dolphins are one of the most fun teams in the NFL, and it's because of Mike McDaniel's offense. Tua Tagovailoa leads the NFL in passer rating (115.9), and just became the first player in Dolphins franchise history to record 300 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and zero interceptions in consecutive games. Tyreek Hill has the most receiving yards by any player in his team's first nine games of a season in the Super Bowl era, and proclaimed after Miami's win over Chicago Sunday that he's "like a kid in a candy store." But seriously, Hill leads the NFL with 76 receptions and 1,104 receiving yards, and is averaging a career-high 122.7 receiving yards per game. He is on pace to record 2,085 receiving yards this season -- which would surpass Calvin Johnson's single-season record of 1,964 yards. Oh, and that Jaylen Waddle kid is pretty good too.
What scares me about Miami, however, is the defense. The Dolphins defense ranks 10th-worst in the league, and just allowed Justin Fields to break a QB regular-season NFL record with 178 rushing yards on Sunday. Fields also became the first player in NFL history to throw three touchdowns and rush for 140-plus yards. Like the rival Jets, this Dolphins team is on the right track, but I'm not betting on them to win the Super Bowl in the first year of the McDaniel era.
Tennessee Titans (5-3, 1st in AFC South)
The Titans showed on Sunday night against the Chiefs that they are capable of beating any team. Seriously, how did Vrabel will this team to overtime in prime time in front of a hostile crowd with a backup rookie quarterback and a wide receiving corps that didn't record a single catch? The Titans are the best team in the AFC South and will make the playoffs, but Derrick Henry will have to rush for 200-plus yards per game if the Titans want to get to Super Bowl LVII. If only they had some weapons Ryan Tannehill could throw to like an A.J. Brown or something. This is a pretty fun team that has one of the best front sevens in the league, but I don't see them as a Super Bowl contender. Their 51 completions to wide receivers this season are the fewest through eight games since the 2010 Raiders.
Seattle Seahawks (6-3, 1st in NFC West)
I think the NFL world has much more respect for Pete Carroll and Geno Smith now. The Seahawks, who many believed could be the worst team in the NFL this season, are leading the NFC West, and have five upset wins on the year -- which is tied for most in the NFL. They have won four straight games by double digits, and their defense has been the top unit in the NFL over this four-game stretch (282.8 yards of total offense allowed per game). The Seahawks defense was the worst unit in the NFL through the first five weeks! Running back Kenneth Walker III is the Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite, but he's not the only first-year player who has made a major contribution for Seattle. Cornerback Tariq Woolen was the Defensive Rookie of the Month for October, Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas are both starting rookie tackles and then cornerback Coby Bryant has made a considerable impact too.
The Seahawks have become one of my favorite teams to watch in the NFL, but I don't see them as legitimate Super Bowl threats. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm not even sure they are the best team in the division just yet.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-5, 1st in NFC South)
The Buccaneers went 54 yards in 35 seconds to beat the Los Angeles Rams last week on a 1-yard receiving touchdown from tight end Cade Otton with nine seconds remaining. Tom Brady completed 5 of 6 passes for 54 yards on his game-winning drive. This comeback marked his 55th career fourth-quarter/overtime game-winning drive -- breaking a tie with Peyton Manning for the most in NFL history.
The Buccaneers are still the heavy favorites to win the division (-220 over at Caesars Sportsbook), but I don't see them winning the NFC South as an absolute given. After their losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers, it's hard to label the Bucs as contenders. They still have the worst rushing offense in the NFL with 60.7 rushing yards per game.
New York Giants (6-2, 3rd in NFC East)
I've had the Giants in the pretenders category the entire year despite the impressive record. I admitted that if they beat the Seahawks a couple weeks ago I would move them up into the contenders category, but that of course did not happen. Looking back, the Giants have won just one game this season by more than six points. Everything has been close.
Saquon Barkley has reestablished himself as a star, but this Giants offense ranks ninth-worst in the NFL (320.6 yards per game), and averages just 20.4 points per game (11th-worst in the NFL). The Giants are the third-best team in their division, and I don't see them as Super Bowl contenders -- although this franchise is moving in the right direction.