Five games shaping up to have biggest impact on the 2022 NFL season

The first half of the 2022 NFL season is in the books — but plenty must still be determined between now and Week 18. Below is a look at the five most consequential games remaining on the schedule, presented in chronological order:

WEEK 15: Thursday, Dec. 15, at 8:15 p.m. ET on Prime Video

You’d think, based on our analysts’ NFC West midseason predictions, that the 49ers held a 1.5-game lead in the division, rather than the Seahawks.

Preseason expectations for the Seahawks were laughably low in hindsight. Now, Pete Carroll — winner of four straight — is the one laughing. Everything appears to be clicking in Seattle. A potentially franchise-altering draft class is making an immediate impact, while a defense that ranked 31st in total defensive EPA (-50.87) through the first five weeks jumped to third (39.18) since Week 6. But at the core of the Seahawks’ stunning start is veteran quarterback Geno Smith. Smith leads the NFL with seven multi-passing-touchdown games, a number that matches his career total entering the season. He also leads the NFL in completion percentage (73.1%) and ranks in the top five in passing touchdowns (15) and passer rating (107.2).

After the Seahawks return from Munich, they’ll have a bye in Week 11, then face the Raiders, Rams and Panthers before hosting the Niners. If they don’t play down to their opponents (those three teams are a combined 8-18), the ‘Hawks could be in prime position to take a commanding division lead and get level with San Francisco, who beat them 27-7 back in Week 2.

As high as the Seahawks are flying at the moment, the 49ers might be even more optimistic about their 2022 outlook. They still boast the league’s No. 1 total defense and landed arguably the biggest fish at the trade deadline in Christian McCaffrey, who’s already made NFL history in red and gold. The 26-year-old is the perfect player for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, possessing the versatility and supreme talent to create mismatches all over the field — for both himself and his teammates.

With a favorable second-half schedule, including just three games against teams that currently have a winning record, the 49ers will have a golden opportunity to gain ground on their NFC West foes. But they could very well need the season sweep to overtake Seattle in the standings. And that might be too tall of a task for Shanahan, who’s been outscored by an average of 8 points per game at Lumen Field (1-4) since joining San Francisco. Will McCaffrey make the difference?

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WEEK 15: Game time and date not yet scheduled.

Although the Bills remain favorites to three-peat in the uber-competitive AFC East, they have plenty of work still to do. They currently are winless within the division (0-2), and their MVP-caliber quarterback is battling an elbow injury.

But barring doomsday news on Josh Allen’s long-term availability, the Bills — still a half-game up on the Jets and Dolphins — have the talent, coaching and leadership to stay atop the division and possibly earn a first-round bye. It won’t come easy, though. The AFC has nearly double the number of winning teams as the NFC (nine vs. five), and the Bills’ division is the only one in the NFL with all four teams above .500. Several AFC East matchups were considered for this list, including the Jets’ Week 14 game at Buffalo and their season finale in Miami. Ultimately, both the Jets and the Patriots have too many question marks on offense — at the QB position, specifically — carrying the potential to derail them down the stretch.

The Dolphins have no such issue.

Miami — riding a three-game win streak — is 6-1 this season when Tua Tagovailoa has started, with the lone loss coming against the Bengals in Week 4, when Tagovailoa exited in the second quarter after suffering a concussion. The third-year pro leads the NFL in passing yards per attempt (9.2) and passer rating (115.9) in 2022, thanks to good decision-making, Mike McDaniel’s scheme and, of course, one of the most prolific receiving duos we’ve ever seen. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle have been exceptional through the first half of the campaign, combining for the most receiving yards by any teammate tandem over the first nine games of a season in the Super Bowl era.

Few teams can match Miami’s offensive firepower, but Buffalo is certainly one of them. The Bills’ Josh Allen-Stefon Diggs pairing is as good any QB-WR combo in the NFL, with Allen leading the NFL in offensive touchdowns (23) and Diggs tying for the league lead in receiving scores (7). As quickly and consistently as the Bills can score, however, it’s their defense and home-field advantage that could be their biggest assets against Miami. Since Sean McDermott’s arrival in 2017, Buffalo boasts the highest total defensive EPA (237.32) at home of any team by far and is tied for the fifth-best home winning percentage (.682).

The Dolphins are already one up in this division battle, having held serve against the Bills in Week 3. A season sweep could mean Miami owns the East by season’s end.

WEEK 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX

Does it get any better than Eagles-Cowboys with the NFC East title on the line?

The undefeated Eagles currently hold a two-game lead over their division rivals (plus the head-to-head advantage), but their upcoming schedule, along with Dallas’ resurgent offense, suggests this Week 16 meeting could decide the division — and possibly the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

In their first meeting this season — a 26-17 Eagles win in Week 6 — Philadelphia capitalized on three Cooper Rush interceptions, as the Cowboys allowed more than 20 points for the first time all season. The Eagles will find a Dak Prescott-led Cowboys team to be a much more challenging opponent. Dallas has scored 30.8 points per game with Prescott at the controls over the last two seasons, the most by any starting QB in the NFL over that span. Of course, Philly has its own star under center in Jalen Hurts, who’s been playing at an MVP level in Year 3. Hurts’ 11-game win streak as a starter is both the longest active streak in the league and the longest for an Eagles quarterback since since QB starts began to be tracked, in 1950.

However, this game will be decided by defense — the driving force for both of these teams. In a passing league, Dallas and Philly each rank in the top five in scoring and pass defense. Sacks and takeaways are common ingredients to deep playoff runs, and the Cowboys lead the NFL in the former (33) while the Eagles lead in the latter (18). In fact, these teams rank in the top eight in both metrics. If the Cowboys can take the flight out of the undefeated Eagles, the NFC East will have its first repeat champion since the Birds won four straight titles from 2001 to ’04. If not, the division’s NFL-record drought without a back-to-back winner will extend to 18 seasons.

What about the 6-2 Giants, you ask? Well, seven of their eight games have been one-score contests, and they’ve trailed in all of them. It’s hard to see a Daniel Jones-orchestrated passing attack that is largely devoid of game-changers (Saquon Barkley excluded) continuing to be on the right side of so many close outcomes.

WEEK 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at 1 p.m. ET on CBS.

Ownership of the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft could be on the line when these two divisional foes meet on New Year’s Day.

The Texans are currently in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 selection and enter Week 10 with the NFL’s eighth-hardest remaining schedule. That doesn’t bode well, in terms of the number of wins Lovie Smith’s young squad can still add. But don’t tell them that. The Texans are playing competitive, disciplined football — even if their record doesn’t reflect it. For a team bereft of playmakers, they are not an easy out. Smith has been deploying a tried-and-true formula that gives his group a legitimate shot each week: Run the ball, chew up clock, avoid penalties, limit opponents’ possessions and play bend-but-don’t-break defense. It’s how a team with only one player on its roster with a Pro Bowl nod (Laremy Tunsil) has been able to hang with the likes of the Chargers, Titans and Eagles this year.

But their margin for error on any given week is minuscule, made only slightly larger by the exhilarating play of rookie running back Dameon Pierce. The Texans will likely be considerable underdogs in the majority of their upcoming matchups, and they will have endured games at Dallas, vs. Kansas City and at Tennessee leading into their AFC South clash with Jacksonville.

The Jaguars’ road ahead will be equally bumpy, if not more so. After visiting Kansas City on Sunday, the Jags still have to face the Cowboys and Jets, as well as the Titans twice. In fact, their remaining slate ranks as the sixth most-challenging of any team. Unlike Houston, the Jags were big spenders this offseason, adding talent on both sides of the ball in anticipation of a Trevor Lawrence Year 2 jump that has yet to happen. While certainly more competitive this season under Doug Pederson, Jacksonville is far from a finished product and is playing its way to yet another top-10 pick. The pieces will need to come together quickly after the Week 11 bye if they want this contest to count for more than draft positioning.

WEEK 18: Game time and date not yet scheduled.

The Ravens appear to have put their second-half meltdowns behind them, tearing off three straight wins to take a one-game lead over the Bengals in the AFC North. Not great news for Cincinnati, which is looking to repeat as division champs for the first time since the 1981-82 seasons. What’s worse for the Bengals? They’re the only team left on Baltimore’s remaining eight-game slate that currently has a winning record.

While the Ravens have been far from perfect during their recent run, they have posted the sixth-best point margin in the second halves of games in the league (+15) after recording the seventh-worst (-25) in such situations over their first six games. Reinforcements recently arrived in the form of Roquan Smith and Tyus Bowser, who have strengthened Baltimore’s front seven, while four-time Pro Bowler Justin Houston has been a revelation in his age-33 season, racking up 6.5 sacks over the past three weeks.

The defense rounding into shape has shifted the spotlight onto Baltimore’s frustratingly inconsistent offense. Much of that variability stems from injuries to key names, such as Rashod Bateman, J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Mark Andrews. While Bateman is out for the season, Lamar Jackson should get his other three playmakers back before the playoffs. The Bengals are dealing with their own injuries on that side of the ball, most notably to Ja’Marr Chase, who’s been sidelined since Week 8 after hurting his hip two weeks earlier. Still, Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins can provide plenty of star power in their own right. They followed up Week 8’s dud against Cleveland with a 40-burger against Carolina, the Bengals’ third 30-plus-point effort in their previous four games. Meanwhile, the Ravens haven’t eclipsed 30 since Week 3.

The Bengals’ 0-3 record in the division, including a Week 5 loss at Baltimore, and their remaining strength of schedule (ninth-toughest) mean a push for the division crown will be an uphill battle. But if the Ravens revert to their early-season ways, failing to play up to their potential, Cincinnati could have enough leeway to make this season finale must-watch TV. If we learned anything from the reigning AFC champs last season, it’s that we should not count them out.

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