Starting on Thursday night when the Buffalo Bills travel to Los Angeles to take on the defending champion Rams, NFL fans can look forward to 271 more games spread across eighteen weeks before the playoffs begin and the road to Arizona for Super Bowl LVII truly opens up.
Following a campaign that saw 18 teams in Super Bowl contention on the final day of the regular season and the (eventually) Super Bowl-bound Cincinnati Bengals win the AFC North after finishing in last place in the division in 2020, there’s a sense that it’s anyone’s game on any given Sunday. Or Monday. Or Thursday. And sometimes even Saturday.
To get you ready for some football, here’s a look at the top 15 storylines to know entering the 2022-23 season.
15. It’s Trey Lance’s time in San Francisco. Or is it?
Drafted third overall prior to last season after the 49ers traded up to get him, Trey Lance is set to start at quarterback for San Francisco after serving as Jimmy Garoppolo’s backup last season. Lance will get every opportunity to prove himself and validate the front office’s decision to move major draft capital to get him, but San Fran does have another option at QB as Garoppolo, who was away from the team throughout training camp based on the assumption by both sides that he would be traded or released, agreed to revise his contract in order to stick with the NFC West club. Never viewed as a top quarterback in the NFL, Jimmy G is 33-14 as a starter in the regular season and has taken the Niners to the NFC Championship game in two of the last three seasons.
14. The Seahawks are quarterback-less in Seattle.
After making two Super Bowl runs with Russell Wilson at quarterback, the Seahawks stumbled last season with their longtime star injured and ineffective for large portions of the 2021-22 campaign. Wilson is now a Denver Bronco, but head coach Pete Carroll remains in Seattle and appears to be overseeing a rebuild that may also be somewhat of a tank job as the Seahawks are going to be starting 31-year-old Geno Smith at quarterback in Week 1. Drafted by the Jets, Smith is in his 10th season in the NFL and has a career record of 13-21. Not good. Drew Lock, who was acquired from Denver as part of the deal for Wilson, will start the season as the top backup but will likely end up on the field at some point as Smith has consistently proven he’s no QB1.
13. Something is up with Tom Brady.
There are all sorts of theories as to why Tom Brady was away from the Bucs for more than 10 days during training camp — and even more speculation about why he has appeared to be in such a bad mood upon returning to Tampa Bay. Frankly, it may not matter as Tampa plays in a division with three terrible teams (the Panthers, Saints and Falcons), and Brady played like an MVP last season despite not winning the award. If this is really his last year — and it actually could be — Brady will not allow himself to go out in any other way than on top. Anything short of the NFC Championship game would be a surprise.
12. The Commanders are Washington’s team now.
After finally giving in to well-deserved pressure and getting rid of his team’s racist nickname, Washington owner Daniel Snyder has christened his team as the Commanders following a stint as simply the Washington Football Team. Though the club has a new name, it’ll likely be more of the same in Washington as Snyder is still in the picture. Following an ugly season that saw Washington roll out Taylor Heinicke, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Garrett Gilbert at quarterback, the Commanders will have ex-Eagle and Colt Carson Wentz under center in Week 1. He’s a bigger name, but not really a big upgrade.
11. Josh McDaniels is a head coach again.
Undefeated in his first six games as the head coach of the Broncos after leaving his role running the offense for the Patriots in New England, Josh McDaniels lost 17 of his next 22 games and was run out of Denver on a rail with a disastrous 11-17 record. Following a year calling the offense for the Rams, McDaniels returned to New England and ran the offense for a decade, winning three Super Bowls in the process. Now the head coach of the Raiders in Las Vegas, McDaniels is back in the AFC West and has the chance to make up for what happened in Denver. Bringing star wideout Davante Adams and edge rusher Chandler Jones to Vegas to boost a Raider team that actually made the playoffs last year should help.
10. Former MVP Matt Ryan is the QB for the Colts.
A good soldier in Atlanta as the team slowly slid down the tubes following a franchise-derailing loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, 2016 league MVP Matt Ryan will get the chance to write his second act following an offseason trade to Indianapolis. Boasting the league’s top rusher in Jonathan Taylor and a defense littered with playmakers, the Colts were one of the most talented teams in the NFL last season aside from their quarterback, Carson Wentz. While no longer an MVP-caliber passer, Ryan is a definite upgrade over his predecessor and could help propel the Colts into the conversation about dark horse Super Bowl candidates.
9. This is a huge season for Bill Belichick’s legacy.
Though he’s widely acknowledged as one of the greatest football coaches of all time, Bill Belichick has coached eight NFL seasons without Tom Brady as his quarterback and has exactly one playoff win and a sub-.500 record to show for it. That win did not come last season as Belichick’s Patriots were throttled by the Bills in a first-round loss where New England’s defense could not force Buffalo to punt even once. Now entering the third season of the post-Brady era in New England, Belichick appears to have a viable replacement in second-year quarterback Mac Jones but has done nothing to help him by bringing in failed head coaches Matt Patricia (Lions) and Joe Judge (Giants) to oversee the Patriot offense. The last time the Patriots won a playoff game it was over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. For Belichick to stay off the hot seat, they’ll need to win another one this season.
8. It’s time for Russell Wilson to earn his money.
Coming off the first losing season of his career with the Seahawks, Russell Wilson made it fairly clear he did not want to be part of a rebuild in Seattle and was subsequently traded to the Broncos for a boatload of players and draft picks. Though he has yet to take a regular-season snap in Denver, the 33-year-old quarterback inked an extension last week that includes $165 million in guaranteed cash and will keep Wilson in Colorado until he is 40. It’s a big contract that will be more than worth it if Wilson is able to guide the Broncos to success in a division that is shaping up to be the best in football thanks to the presence of star quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and Justin Herbert (Chargers).
7. It’s make-or-break for Tua Tagovailoa in Miami.
Now in his third season in the NFL, Tua Tagovailoa has to put it all together in Miami under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel. Simply put, Tagovailoa will be out of excuses if he struggles this year with McDaniel, who served as the offensive coordinator for the 49ers last season, calling the plays for an offense that includes pass-catching playmakers like Jaylen Waddle and ex-Chief Tyreek Hill at wide receiver and Mike Gesicki at tight end. Solid but not spectacular in limited action over the course of his first two seasons in the NFL, Tagovailoa now has a legitimate NFL starter in Teddy Bridgewater breathing down his neck, and McDaniel may not hesitate to go to him as he will want to establish a winning culture in his first year running the Dolphins. Should that happen, Tagovailoa will get another shot in the NFL, but probably not in Miami.
6. Baker Mayfield has a shot to prove everyone wrong.
Unceremoniously kicked to the curb by Cleveland after gutting it out last season with an injured shoulder as the Browns unraveled around him, top-drafted quarterback Baker Mayfield has a new lease on life after beating out Sam Darnold for the starting job with the Panthers. Seemingly popular with his teammates before things began to fall apart in Cleveland, Mayfield has every reason to give it his all as he will be a free agent after this season and needs to prove his worth if he wants to cash in. A good year could be tough to come by for Mayfield as the Panthers are fairly light on offensive talent outside of dual-threat running back Christian McCaffrey, but QB-needy teams will surely notice if the ex-Brown keeps Carolina in the mix.
5. Dan Campbell may actually be a good NFL coach.
A first-year coach last season who was able to guide the Lions to the league’s second-worst record at 3-13-1, Dan Campbell got introduced to a national audience during this offseason’s edition of Hard Knocks on HBO. A former tight end who has paid his dues moving up the coaching ladder, Campbell comes across as a meathead who barely knows his ABCs, let alone his Xs and Os. But, that said, he seems like a likable meathead and one who may be able to motivate his players to run through walls or at least their opponents. The Lions have had four straight losing seasons and are expected to be fairly terrible again. If they are simply respectable and take a step forward under Campbell, it will likely be viewed as more of a leap and could be enough to earn him some Coach of the Year votes.
4. Can Aaron Rodgers win anything besides MVP?
Following a season that saw him win the MVP award for the fourth time, Aaron Rodgers wasn’t able to do much of anything in the playoff for the top-seeded Packers as Green Bay put up just 10 points in a home loss to the 49ers. Rodgers appeared disinterested at times during the loss and basically didn’t throw the ball to anyone other than receiver Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones. Adams is now a Raider and Rodgers, who got a monster contract this offseason, which will keep him in Green Bay as long as he wants, could certainly win another MVP award if he is able to keep the receiver-needy Packers atop the NFC. Unless it comes with a Super Bowl, though, another MVP trophy for Rodgers won’t mean much. Rodgers won the Super Bowl before he ever won an MVP, but he’s never made it back to the big game after losing four times in the NFC Championship game.
3. Trevor Lawrence is out to show he isn’t a bust.
Dealt a bad hand as a rookie by having walking dumpster fire Urban Meyer as his coach, former No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence never really had a chance last season for a putrid Jacksonville team that has won just 14 games over the past four seasons. The wins may not be coming this season either, but Lawrence should have a better year for the Jaguars as the team has upgraded its offensive talent by bringing in players like Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram. The biggest boon for Lawrence will be the absence of Meyer and the presence of new coach Doug Pederson, who was able to get half of an MVP-caliber season out of Carson Wentz and won a Super Bowl with backup Nick Foles playing quarterback, on the sidelines. Pederson isn’t great, but he’s light years better than Meyer and Lawrence should be able to reap the benefits and prove that last year was the exception, not the rule.
2. Patrick Mahomes has new WRs and it won’t matter.
Named the league’s best player by a panel of more than 50 NFL experts after throwing for 4,839 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2021, Patrick Mahomes is entering his fifth season as a starter and his first without Tyreek Hill on Kansas City’s roster. One of just four quarterbacks in league history to record three or more seasons with 35+ touchdowns and 4,500+ passing yards, Mahomes is going to be just fine without Hill as the Chiefs now have imports JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (Packers) as well as rookie wideout Skyy Moore. Kansas City speedster Mecole Hardman should see an expanded role as he has some chemistry with Mahomes and top target Travis Kelce should be even more involved in the passing attack from his tight end position. Mahomes may not have his security blanket with Hill gone, but he’ll have a new one in no time.
1. The season’s first game may be a Super Bowl preview.
When Buffalo Bills open the season on Thursday night against the defending champion Rams, they’ll be slight favorites despite playing on the road against the champs. That’s a clear indication of the type of hype the Bills have been getting this offseason — and it may be well-deserved. By all accounts, the Bills have looked excellent on both offense and defense and Buffalo is on a mission to win it all after coming seconds away from beating the Chiefs in the playoffs to advance to the AFC Championship game. On the other side of Week 1 coin, the Rams are returning with a roster that has lost a few key pieces (Von Miller, Darious Williams and Andrew Whitworth) but is still one of the league’s best. The Rams may also have the league’s best coach in Sean McVay and are also all-in on winning while their championship window is ajar. It’ll be Buffalo-LA in Week 1 and it’s possible it’ll be the same matchup in Super Bowl LVII in February.