The sun might go from East to West, but the power dynamics in the NFL this season have gone from West to East.
The biggest off-season shakeups before the start of the 2022 campaign had NFL fans expecting fireworks and carnage in the AFC West. Josh McDaniels brought years of experience running a high-powered offense to Las Vegas and reunited Davante Adams with his college quarterback Derek Carr. The Broncos sold out for the QB they felt could push them over the hump when they traded for Russell Wilson. The Chargers added Khalil Mack and top free agent corner J.C. Jackson in the hopes of building a defense that could balance their star-studded offense. And even without Tyreek Hill, no one was counting out Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid in Kansas City.
The West was the Best...
To begin the season, Vegas sportsbooks listed all four of the teams in the AFC West with an over/under of at least 8.5 wins. Three of the teams had lines set at 10 wins or more. These are incredibly high win totals for teams all in the same division. But now at the start of Week 13, the competition within the division has been highly disappointing. The Chiefs are three games ahead of the Chargers and have already beaten them twice. The Chargers' season once again has been marked by key injuries and crunch-time inconsistencies. The Broncos' offense has been a disaster, scoring the fewest points in the NFL, and the Raiders' defense has been one of the worst units in the league. Kansas City is the only team in the division with a positive point differential, a further display of its domination.
The exact opposite can be said about the AFC East. While expectations were high for the Buffalo Bills after their 2021 season ended in tragic fashion, the rest of the division is outperforming expectations. The new offensive weapons in Miami are meshing perfectly with new coach Mike McDaniel, and have the Dolphins tied with the Bills at the top of the division, while quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is a legitimate MVP candidate. Despite inconsistencies on the offensive side of the ball, both the Jets and Patriots also had winning records heading into Week 13, on the strength of two of the best defenses in football. All four teams remain squarely in the playoff hunt; and unlike the AFC West, every team in the East has a positive point differential.
When we switch conferences to the NFC, we see a similar story. The NFC West had three teams reach the playoffs in 2021, and the Rams entered the season with highest expectations coming off a victory in Super Bowl 56. Instead, they sit at the bottom of the division with just three wins and one of the worst rushing attacks in football. Hopes were high in Arizona following a 2021 playoff berth, but the Cardinals are 4-8, and their quarterback is publicly criticizing the scheme of their head coach. Many fans thought that 2022 would be a rebuilding year for the Seahawks; and when sportsbooks set the preseason win total at 5.5 wins, it was the third lowest total in the NFL. Instead, Seattle has taken one of the least talented rosters in the league and completely outperformed expectations. However, things have cooled slightly with back-to-back losses, and it's hard to know if the Seahawks have what it takes to finish the season strong and reach the playoffs. After a slow start, the 49ers have put together four straight wins and have taken over the driver's seat in the division; but if the playoffs started today, only San Francisco would make the postseason. It's not the gauntlet we were expecting when the year began.
The East is No Longer the Least
Meanwhile, the NFC East is on pace to make history. If the season ended today, all four teams in the division would reach the playoffs, which would be an NFL first. The Eagles have the league's best record, while the Cowboys survived an injury to their star quarterback. The Giants have performed admirably in head coach Brian Daboll's first year, despite a roster that most would say lacks talent in key positions, and the Commanders are the hottest team in football, winning six of their last seven games.
So why has all the prowess slid from the West to the East this year? I believe there are two key reasons: defensive dominance and personnel fit.
The first of those two reasons, defensive dominance, is easy to understand. It seems logical that if points are down across the whole league, then the teams with the best defenses are truly making their impact felt. The AFC East has three of the league's top six defenses, while the NFC East has three defenses in the top 10. The AFC and NFC West each only have one team in the top 15. While dynamic offenses are still critical to top-end success in the NFL, we have seen the league's best defenses respond better in 2022 to high-powered shotgun offenses by flooding the field with elite athletes while keeping pressure on quarterbacks. Teams in the East divisions have had a much easier time dominating games on the defensive side of the ball.
The other critical reason for this success is personnel fit. There is plenty you can read on the massive impact of fit in the NFL, but we can break it down to two main parts: skill set fit and system fit.
System fit is often why a player like Geno Smith is finding much more success running Seattle's offense -- where he is taking 70 percent of the snaps from the shotgun -- than he ever had in a more traditional attack under center in New York. It is when the way a team wants to schematically approach the game compliments the players on the roster.
Skill set fit is when a player adds something that the roster is in need of, or something that complements others already on the team. It's why a speedster such as Christian Kirk was so coveted on a Jacksonville roster that lacked a speedy receiving threat, and why in turn Arizona gave up a draft pick to replace Kirk with a similar style of player in Marquise Brown. It is also why an athletic threat at quarterback such as Tyler Huntley makes more sense to back up Lamar Jackson and his similar skill set than a less-mobile quarterback with a more proven track record such as Nick Foles or Teddy Bridgewater. Those veteran QBs would require Baltimore to run an entirely different offense if they were to enter the game, while Huntley allows Baltimore to continue to use the same system should he have to fill in.
Coaching Makes All the Difference in the NFL Standings
In 2022, personnel fit has proved to be much stronger for teams in the East than the West. NFC East key additions such as A.J. Brown filled a roster void on the Eagles and made the Philadelphia passing attack significantly more dynamic. Daboll has tailored the Giants' offense to the strength of his team, getting better-than-expected performances out of Daniel Jones and an incredible return to form from Saquon Barkley. The decision in Washington to start Taylor Heinicke over Carson Wentz has sparked the Commanders' offense, because Heinicke's risk-taking style has fit better with Washington's talented receiving core. Dallas has adjusted the fit of its defense to allow Micah Parsons to dominate games rushing off the edge, while controlling the clock with a rush-heavy offensive approach.
These situations have not played out as well in the NFC West. The Rams' offensive line has not been able to generate a running game, which cripples the play-action-based passing attack of head coach Sean McVay. McVay has failed to adjust his scheme to the fit of his roster, and the results have been an offense that has scored 14 or fewer points in more than half of their games. The Cardinals have failed to find adequate replacements for free agent departures Jordan Phillips and Chandler Jones, and this has led to the league's second-worst defense, allowing 4.5 more points per game than last year.
In the AFC, the situation is much the same. Key additions in the AFC West have proved to be poor systematic fits. Denver's Wilson has thrown only eight passing touchdowns in 11 games in Nathaniel Hackett's offense, and some have expressed concerns he hasn't taken in all of the new offensive concepts. While Las Vegas' McDaniels has one of the NFL's best resumés when it comes to using dynamic slot receivers and tight ends, for whatever reason that has not translated to production from former Pro Bowlers Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller. The pair have combined for fewer than 40 catches and only one touchdown. And in Los Angeles, the injury bug has bitten the Chargers once again -- but even before he was hurt, free agent addition Jackson was proving to be a poor fit for the Chargers' 29th-ranked defense.
In the AFC East, the new personnel have come together to provide much stronger results. You couldn't ask for a better mesh than Dolphins skill players have had with new coach McDaniel. Tyreek Hill is leading the league in receiving, while flanking quarterback Tagovailoa with elite speed at all skill positions is paying the highest of dividends. In New York, rookies Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson are having a big impact for the Jets, and free agent cornerback D.J. Reed was a perfect fit for coach Robert Saleh's defense. The Patriots have also had success with some of their rookies on defense, as both Jack Jones and Marcus Jones have had positive contributions. Even more importantly for New England, cornerback Jalen Mills and edge rusher Matthew Judon have taken huge leaps in their second year in the system.
It's not all bad news for the teams out West, and it's very possible whoever wins those divisions could find themselves hoisting their conference championship trophy and heading to the Super Bowl. Kansas City is the current Vegas favorite to win it all, while the 49ers find themselves narrowly behind the Eagles for the best odds to win the NFC.
However, the gauntlet those teams in the AFC and NFC West have had to face to get to the playoffs hasn't been what most NFL fans expected -- and it is a lesson that just because your roster is flush with talent doesn't mean your season will be filled with victories.
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