Over the past six football-free months, I've had takes. Many, many takes. Shoot, at this point, my takes have takes. This is what happens when we're deprived of real, live, consequential gridiron action for half a year.
But that is over this week. The regular season is here, with a glorious full slate of games on tap. It's go time!
So, no more listless banter. No more evolving commentary. This is when the takes are written in stone, submitted for harsh judgment as the actual season plays out on the field.
Here are my last-minute predictions for the 2022 NFL season, Schein Nine style.
1) The Patriots are going to be bad
Back at the beginning of June, I led off a column in this space with the following prediction: The Patriots finish 14th(!) in the AFC pecking order. Three months later, that could be generous.
Throughout training camp, reports out of Foxborough were dire. Boston Sports Journal's Greg Bedard said the first padded practice featured "one of the worst periods of offensive football that I've seen in my 20 years of covering the league." A few days later, Patriots.com scribe Evan Lazar wrote that second-year quarterback Mac Jones, who finished second in 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, looked "out of sync and sometimes uncomfortable." And a week ago, longtime Pats beat writer Tom Curran said the offense "has run as smoothly as a car with square wheels." Oof. Adding insult to ineptitude, New England scored the fewest total points (47) of any AFC team in the preseason.
All of that raises two obvious questions:
- Why are the Patriots suddenly ditching the offense they've run for two decades in favor of a zone-blocking scheme?
- And why is this extreme offensive makeover being led by two failed head coaches with defensive backgrounds in Matt Patricia and Joe Judge?
I'd love to get former Patriots OC/current Raiders HC Josh McDaniels' thoughts on this, because it's completely nonsensical. The offensive line looks lost. The weaponry around Jones looks underwhelming. And New England looks, dare I say, incompetent?
Now, I haven't mentioned the defense yet. Maybe Bill Belichick fields a shutdown unit on that side of the ball -- though I have serious questions there, too, starting with the cornerback position.
So, going back to the original take, I'm even more bullish on New England being the 14th-best team in the AFC. Only the Texans and Jets appear worse. The Jags, who've won four games combined over the past two years, look more promising.
Maybe New England wins seven or eight games simply because Belichick is the greatest coach ever. But that's the absolute ceiling. The 2022 Patriots are almost certainly going to be painful to the eyes.
2) The Bears are going to be worse
As in, the worst. In my mind, the Chicago Bears are already on the clock for the first overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Look, I love Justin Fields. This has nothing to do with him. Well, actually, it has everything to do with him, in the sense that Chicago has done such a poor job of putting him in a position to succeed. The damage from the Matt Nagy/Ryan Pace era (error) runs deep. Back in June, Pro Football Focus ranked the Bears' offensive line as the second-worst unit in football, and the group's ghastly effort in the preseason did nothing to challenge that notion. Meanwhile, the receiving corps features Darnell Mooney and ... a whole bunch of filler. And the defense, which ranked 22nd in points allowed last season, no longer features Khalil Mack.
For Fields' sake, I hope I'm dead wrong about this team. Otherwise, Chicago is poised to bottom out and severely stymie a promising young prospect at the game's most important position.
3) Kevin O'Connell changes everything for the Vikings
Color me obsessed with O'Connell's passion and playbook. I love the knowledge and positivity emanating from Minnesota's new head man.
Over the past few years, it felt like Mike Zimmer sucked the life out of this team. The old-school taskmaster certainly wasn't simpatico with his Pro Bowl quarterback, Kirk Cousins. Minnesota needed a change. The Vikings needed a new voice, an optimistic voice. And I loved the tone O'Connell struck last week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports" -- particularly when he was discussing Cousins, who spent a season in Washington with O'Connell as his position coach.
"I feel like we've got a constant dialogue between him and I, you know, we meet a lot about what we're doing offensively, obviously his role in it, but also just big picture," O'Connell told me. "I want him to feel as involved as he's ever been in an offense and how we build it and how we're going to try to attack opponents and I think that's very, very important. If him and I are on the same page, he can be an extension of me -- and vice versa, I can be an extension of him to our football team in a lot of ways that only enhance his ability to just authentically be himself, lead us and then just go play, because he's a talented guy, man."
Music to my ears! Consequently, I believe Cousins is about to enjoy the best season of his career. I also believe Justin Jefferson is right: After this year, he will indeed be considered the best receiver in the NFL.
In a wide-open NFC wild-card field (more on that in a bit), I like Minnesota returning to the postseason.
4) Forget the Titans
Remember eight months ago, when the Titans entered the playoffs as the AFC's top seed? Me neither.
Now, I love Mike Vrabel and Derrick Henry. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, even with A.J. Brown in Philly and Ryan Tannehill still under center. But the season-ending injury to Harold Landry, who just made his first Pro Bowl after leading the Titans with 12 sacks, is a devastating blow before the season even kicks off. The Titans also lost another Pro Bowler on the other side of the ball, with Rodger Saffold departing in free agency.
Vrabel's a true leader of men. And when Henry is right, he can carry a team on his back. So I could look stupid here. But I've got last season's No. 1 seed missing the AFC playoffs altogether.
5) Don't sleep on the Steelers
Stop me if you've heard this before: Mike Tomlin has never posted a losing season.
OK, just because that stat's cited ad nauseam doesn't make it any less impressive. Tomlin is entering Year 16 as Pittsburgh's head coach, and he's yet to finish a campaign below .500. It's not going to happen in 2022, either.
Mitch Trubisky represents an upgrade over last year's version of Ben Roethlisberger. (For that matter, so does Kenny Pickett.) Trubisky getting his PhD is quarterbacking last season in Buffalo was a blessing after the mess he experienced in Chicago. The receiving corps, with promising rookie George Pickens joining the fray, is better. Najee Harris is a rare specimen in today's game: a true three-down, bell-cow back. And the defense will bounce back in 2022, especially with free-agent signee Myles Jack bringing everything together at linebacker.
I don't know if this team will hit the postseason, but I do know one thing: Tomlin's non-losing streak will continue, as Pittsburgh will win at least nine games.
6) Back-to-back-to-BACK MVP Aaron Rodgers? You betcha!
The Packers lost an elite offensive weapon (Davante Adams) and a savvy offensive coach (Nathaniel Hackett). The receiving corps resembles a witness protection program and the offensive line's full of walking wounded.
And yet, I still love Green Bay in 2022.
Sure, the loaded defense is a part of this. But really, it comes down to one man -- it always comes down to one man: Aaron Rodgers.
Last month on SiriusXM Radio, I asked Rodgers what it would mean to win a third straight (and fifth total) MVP. After initially acknowledging it would mean a lot to him, the quarterback got down to brass tacks.
"I don't say this as a cliché, I say this as heartfelt as I can: I want to win a championship," Rodgers said. "I've had all the individual success I could possibly ever have dreamed of accomplishing. I've got four MVPs. I'm an honorary blackbelt. I'd like to win another Super Bowl -- that's most important. Everything else would be just purely icing on the cake."
Would you expect anything different? That said, I've got the icing ready for a three-peat.
7) And the additional awards go to ...
So Rodgers takes MVP. How about the other major individual honors?
- Offensive Player of the Year: Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills
- Defensive Player of the Year: Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers
- Offensive Rookie of the Year: George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Defensive Rookie of the Year: Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Detroit Lions
- Comeback Player of the Year: Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
- Coach of the Year: Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
The toughest one of those was the last one. Reid edges out Josh McDaniels, Mike Tomlin, Mike McDaniel and Kevin O'Connell. I think the Chiefs got significantly worse this offseason with the Tyreek Hill trade. I don't love the WR replacements. I don't think Kansas City can run the football. And I have serious questions about the defense. But in a coach and quarterback league, Reid and Patrick Mahomes are a cheat code.
8) My playoff teams
Projected AFC playoff seeding:
- Buffalo Bills (East champion)
- Los Angeles Chargers (West champion)
- Cincinnati Bengals (North champion)
- Indianapolis Colts (South champion)
- Las Vegas Raiders (Wild card)
- Kansas City Chiefs (Wild card)
- Miami Dolphins (Wild card)
The Chargers are loaded after a great offseason, and I'm obsessed with Justin Herbert. That said, with all of the offseason attention paid to AFC squads outside of Kansas City, I won't be the least bit surprised if Patrick Mahomes goes on a Michael Jordan-style "And I took that personally" tour in 2022. Meanwhile, America is sleeping on these Raiders. Derek Carr is going to have the best season of his career with Josh McDaniels calling plays and Davante Adams catching balls. I love the new coaching staff and raw talent in Miami, and I still dig Tua Tagovailoa. Matt Ryan takes Indy to the division title for the first time in the Frank Reich/Chris Ballard era. Tough leaving the Ravens and Broncos out, but there's unprecedented greatness in the AFC.
Projected NFC playoff seeding:
- Green Bay Packers (North champion)
- Los Angeles Rams (West champion)
- New Orleans Saints (South champion)
- Philadelphia Eagles (East champion)
- San Francisco 49ers (Wild card)
- Minnesota Vikings (Wild card)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Wild card)
I love the Saints' receiver core -- and playmaker extraordinaire Alvin Kamara -- with a healthy Jameis Winston. The Niners are the best team in the NFL, 2-53. Trey Lance remains the big question, though, as bringing back Jimmy Garoppolo became a no-brainer with Lance's shaky summer. The Eagles are better than the Cowboys in every area but quarterback. My last wild-card team, Tampa Bay, has potential downside that scares me, considering the offensive line issues and Tom Brady's odd offseason. Toughest omissions: Carolina and Dallas.
9) My Super Bowl LVII pick
Buffalo Bills over Green Bay Packers.
Last month on SiriusXM Radio, Josh Allen told me that, when it comes to Buffalo wings, "he's a hot guy." As he should be. Last year, he told me he'd jump through multiple tables on fire if the Bills were to win a Super Bowl. Well, get the flame-resistant clothing ready, because it's happening this season. Buffalo is winning its first Super Bowl. The Bills are loaded. Allen is special, and he's going to outduel Aaron Rodgers on a classic Super Bowl Sunday.
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