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This predicted record may seem surprising, but hear me out.
Every year, an NFL team goes from worst to first, and no one got bitten by the injury bug worse than the Ravens last year as they plummeted from an AFC-leading 8-3 record to an 8-9 last place finish. They placed more than 20 players on injured reserve, many of them top players — they accounted for a total of $48 million in cap money.
Assuming relative good health, the Ravens offense will remain the run-dominant force it’s been since Lamar Jackson was inserted as the starter. While the season-long storyline will be the question of whether and to what extent Jackson will get paid as his contract expires at season’s end, the real question is whether he can overcome a woefully inexperienced receiving corps now that his buddy Marquise Brown is having a college reunion with Kyler Murray in Arizona.
Yikes 😬 pic.twitter.com/7eqndfIflr
— Rob Woodfork (@RobWoodfork) August 22, 2022
My guess is the Ravens are all-in on their physical identity and will lean more on their tight ends, such as 2021 First-Team All-Pro Mark Andrews. It’s a position at which they’re ridiculously deep after selecting perhaps the steal of the 2022 NFL draft, Isaiah Likely in the fourth round (who I’m on record as saying would have been a perfect pick for Washington, but I digress).
Speaking of draft steals Washington should have picked, Kyle Hamilton looks to be an outstandingly versatile piece for a Ravens defense that under new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald has a very Michigan feel to it. The Ravens assistant-turned-Michigan DC-turned-Ravens DC will be relying on former Wolverine pass rushers to wreak havoc and wants to drop reasonable doubt on offenses like Jay-Z.
Thanks to a well-placed bye week and one of the most complete rosters in the NFL, count on Baltimore history repeating itself: Like Joe Flacco a decade ago, Jackson bets on himself in the last year of his contract and makes an absurd amount of money thanks to a deep playoff run.
If you’ve read my stuff for years, you know I’m a huge Mike Tomlin fan. His NFL-record streak of 15 straight non-losing seasons is as impressive as his philosophy on just about everything, and I dare you to not be impressed by his stellar interview on the Pivot Podcast.
But his streak is in real jeopardy this season. This is the start of Pittsburgh’s life without Ben Roethlisberger under center, and Tomlin’s first true QB competition involves the unimpressive trio of Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph and rookie Kenny Pickett. All signs point to it being Trubisky’s job, at least to start the season.
My guess is the former No. 2 overall pick will last as the starter for two reasons: 1) He’s not as bad as many have pegged him to be and 2) he’s historically adept at avoiding back-breaking turnovers.
Since the merger, only 1 QB has 50+ career starts without throwing a pick 6:
• Mitchell Trubisky pic.twitter.com/rED0NYBTsI
— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) February 27, 2022
Of course, throwing to second-round rookie receiver George Pickens won’t hurt — he’s been the story of training camp leaguewide, and looks poised to be in the early conversation for Rookie of the Year.
The next-biggest question surrounding Pittsburgh is how the defense will perform. Devin Bush has been a disappointment at inside linebacker and is on his last chance to stick as a Steeler. Myles Jack is an underrated addition that should help lift the Steelers above the bottom third of the league in defensive ranking — and certainly keep them from ranking dead-last in run defense.
So while Pittsburgh will hover around .500 this season, I have Tomlin’s streak continuing because the Steelers are the least-traveled team this season, logging just over 6,000 travel miles and never leaving the Eastern time zone (which is huge given their issues on the West Coast).
We’re at least a year away from enjoying the Pickett-to-Pickens passing combo, but Pittsburgh will be just fine in 2022.
I hope Cincy enjoyed last year’s stunning and improbable run to the Super Bowl, because history suggests Joe Burrow won’t be back in the Super Bowl again.
Will Joe Burrow buck this very extensive trend? pic.twitter.com/tBhfU99JW5
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) February 16, 2022
That said, it doesn’t mean the Bengals won’t be fun to watch. Burrow proved he’s a legit franchise QB, and his favorite target, JaMarr Chase, is poised for big sophomore season, especially with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd helping him form an unstoppable trio of receivers. And let’s not forget they added tight end Hayden Hurst.
But the Bengals’ middle-of-the-road defense didn’t do enough in the offseason to ensure they’ll be able to sweep away the Ravens and Steelers as they did in 2021. Plus, we all know about the historic “Super Bowl hangover” for the team that loses the big game.
Thus, I see 2022 as a course correction for the Bengals.
This record certainly isn’t what Cleveland has in mind after betting it all on Deshaun Watson, but that controversial move wasn’t about 2022.
The Browns made the blockbuster deal knowing that the allegations of sexual misconduct swirling around him would lead to suspension. Oddly enough, the 11-game ban actually hurts Cleveland more than if he sat out the whole season.
So they’ll have him back just in time to cash in on the hype surrounding his return to Houston, but in the meantime, journeyman backup Jacoby Brissett will game-manage the Browns through the toughest part of their schedule. I don’t put a lot of stock in won-loss records for quarterbacks, but Brissett has never had a better extended stretch than his 7-8 mark in 2019 — so even with a talented defense, this will be a lost season for Cleveland but with hope for a brighter future inextricably tied to Watson in 2023 and beyond.