2022 NFL playoffs: Ranking all 12 NFC wild card contenders, with Cowboys, Seahawks, Commanders up top

With 12 weeks of the 2022 NFL season in the books, it’s time to turn at least one eye toward the playoffs. Not a single team has been mathematically eliminated from contention, but a few can clinch postseason spots starting in Week 13, and several division leaders are far enough in front to begin making plans for January action.

With that in mind, here’s how we’d rank the 12 teams competing for three open wild card spots in the NFC:

Division leaders

  1. Eagles (NFC East, 10-1)
  2. Vikings (NFC North, 9-2)
  3. 49ers (NFC West, 7-4)
  4. Buccaneers (NFC South, 5-6)

Wild card contenders

12. Bears (3-9)

If Justin Fields were healthy, they could at least be big-play spoilers. But not only is the emerging young quarterback banged up; so are his best supporting pieces on both sides of the ball. The focus has almost fully shifted to 2023, when they can restock.

11. Rams (3-8)

From all-star team to body-bag collection, they’re down so many key players — Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Joseph Noteboom, Allen Robinson — that Sean McVay might actually be closer to retirement than ever. The only thing keeping them remotely afloat is the defense, which is miraculously keeping opponents to under 25 points per game.

10. Saints (4-8)

Andy Dalton has surprised against inferiors and folded against superiors, and Dennis Allen has neither the lineup nor strategy to properly elevate the QB, or support a switch back to Jameis Winston. Their “D” is competitive, yes, but that’s about it here.

9. Cardinals (4-8)

New year, new week, same story: Kyler Murray is a highlight waiting to happen, but he and the rest of the Kliff Kingsbury offense go quiet in crunch time. If they lean more on the ground, they might surprise. But the defense remains a major issue as well.

8. Panthers (4-8)

Is Sam Darnold really the antidote they needed under center? Perhaps for D.J. Moore. Truthfully, they’ve put up a lot of fight under interim Steve Wilks, and the defensive front is on a roll. In ugly games, they have the hard-nosed nature — and running attack, with D’Onta Foreman — to make noise. The concern is consistency through the air.

7. Falcons (5-7)

Like their rival Panthers, they are best suited to play ugly games, sticking to the ground so QB Marcus Mariota remains in the background as a passer. And they’ve got the backfield to do so. The problem is, with such a vulnerable “D,” that strategy inevitably relies on coming through in decisive moments of tight games, and they don’t have the star power to deliver there.

6. Packers (4-8)

Their prime-time loss to the Eagles is a bittersweet fork in the road regarding Aaron Rodgers: with the star QB especially banged up, Green Bay has multiple reasons to get an extended look at Jordan Love. The defense is leaky, particularly against the run, which bodes poorly for late-season matchups. But Love’s fresh arm and legs might at least offer a bit of juice to Matt LaFleur’s offense, which continues to get positive gains from Aaron Jones and Christian Watson.

5. Lions (4-7)

Their Thanksgiving effort against the Bills was indicative of their status: incredibly feisty, but not quite there. Amon-Ra St. Brown single-handedly helps Jared Goff stay in games, and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has helped unlock a balanced attack. The “D” has also been improved since Dan Campbell made a staffing shuffle with Aubrey Pleasant. It just feels as if Detroit remains another year away from fielding a truly playoff-caliber roster.

4. Giants (7-4)

The luster of Brian Daboll’s arrival has worn off a bit, with both sides of the ball slowing amid waves of injuries. And truth is, as long as Daniel Jones remains unable to push the ball downfield (either because of his own abilities, or lack of receiving help, or both), they’ll be a one-dimensional club, allowing teams to zero in on Saquon Barkley. Still, Daboll has generally maximized the lineups he’s been afforded, and if they get healthier, they might have the trenches to surprise.

3. Commanders (7-5)

Taylor Heinicke is a sweet story in the D.C. area, but he’s brought more energy than sustainable passing production in place of Carson Wentz. Even as a safe weekly bet for at least one turnover, however, his confidence has paired well enough with a revived ground game (Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson are a true one-two punch), steady aerial weapon (Terry McLaurin) and physical defensive front to give Ron Rivera a never-say-die contender.

2. Seahawks (6-5)

Their chief issue is that they can’t really stop anybody. Their superpower, however, is that few can stop them when they’re clicking. Only the Chiefs, Bills and Eagles have scored more. Geno Smith has remained more poised than expected, Kenneth Walker III is an occasional home-run hitter, and they’ve got two of the trustiest big-play wideouts in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The question is whether Pete Carroll’s squad can control the ball long enough, or find a way to possess it last, to overcome equally explosive offenses.

1. Cowboys (8-3)

As balanced as the Eagles are in the East, Dallas can’t even be counted out of that division race yet. Their pass rush has always been deadly when healthy. But it’s Mike McCarthy’s offense that’s reached new heights since Dak Prescott’s return from injury, averaging 33.8 points per game during the 4-1 run with No. 4 back under center. Dak, of course, is still seeking to enhance a lacking big-game resume, but he’s got all the pieces, between Tony Pollard and CeeDee Lamb and the Micah Parsons-led “D,” to storm into the postseason with momentum.

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